All work and no play?

19th June 2009 at 01:00
Some heads are putting a stop to homework, denouncing its effectiveness, while others believe it's the key to parental involvement

Richard Rowe, head of a Surrey junior school, has just abolished homework. Last September he sent a letter to parents explaining that pupils at Holy Trinity Junior School in Guildford would be encouraged to read and do the occasional project but the school would no longer prescribe the (up to) 30 minutes a day for children aged between seven and 11 the Government recommends.

Mr Rowe, the school's head for 18 years, says: "We don't think doing lots of school work in the evenings is appropriate for children of this age. You can make arguments for parents being involved, but in so many homes it causes distress and anger."

Ofsted has graded the school outstanding and Mr Rowe says he has noticed no difference in attainment since homework stopped.

He wishes he'd made the decision years ago, but he baulked at the controversy it might cause. His school's parents were divided on the issue at first: "We had focus groups. One parent said they didn't want their child to have any homework. Another said they wanted more and another that it was about right. In the end it was a management decision, but parents have been supportive. We have just had an Ofsted and there were only a couple of complaints."

Most surveys, however, suggest that parents are strongly in favour of homework. As John Fairhurst, head of Shenfield High School in Essex puts it: "Homework is part of the traditional parents' mindset about what makes a good school."

Teachers, particularly those in primary schools, are more sceptical. Delegates at this year's Association of Teachers and Lecturers' Easter conference voted to abolish formal homework for primary pupils. The motion said it was "a waste of children's and teachers' time which could be spent much more profitably on effective learning in and out of the classroom."

The debate about the value of homework is nothing new. In a round-up of research into the value of homework, Dr Susan Hallam of the Institute of Education (IoE) found that the first research on homework in 1928 revealed worries about children living in poor housing.

It blamed public exams for long hours of homework that interfered with hobbies and "the development of natural abilities". A year later a feature headlined "Is homework necessary?" filled the front page of The TES. In 1935 inspectors complained that teachers were still setting unsuitable tasks and argued that life for children under 10 should be homework free.

Yet no one seemed to notice. The idea that more homework meant better exam results persisted. After the war and the establishment of grammars and secondary moderns, only 2 per cent of grammar school children escaped homework, while 71 per cent of those in secondary moderns did none, underlining the class divide.

When the Blair government came to power in 1997, it went further than any of its predecessors and introduced guidelines on the homework schools should set for children aged from five to 18. In 1998, only half of primaries had homework policies. A year later the figure was 90 per cent.

But what was the evidence it worked? Is it possible to establish a link between homework and higher standards? Soon after the guidelines were introduced, Dr Penelope Weston, formerly a researcher at the National Foundation for Educational Research, produced a report for Ofsted that pointed out that it was difficult to identify a clear homework corollary.

More recent research by Dr Hallam suggests that the damage to the relationship between parents and children, as middle-class parents put pressure on their offspring to succeed, outweighed any educational advantage. Homework can create anxiety, boredom, fatigue and emotional exhaustion in children who resent the encroachment on their free time, she says.

"Several things have created this problem," she says. "Schools are worried about Sats, so they set lots of written work to be done at home. And parents have stressful jobs and limited time, so they want quality time with their children, not having to help them with homework."

But Dr Hallam adds that the picture is complicated and that parental help with some basic skills is useful. "Parents of primary school children have for many years listened to their children reading and helped with spellings and times tables. The former can be done as a shared activity and the last two while travelling in the car. It's a way of parents showing an interest in their children's learning. Whether you call this homework is debatable. I don't think it should be banned."

Richard Rowe agrees: "Some children love doing topics and those in Year 6 who wanted to write books about their bodies during the Easter holidays did so. Our librarian finds books for every child. We don't say to them, `This is your homework for the evening'."

The evidence for the value of homework is stronger for secondary pupils than for primary. Caroline Sharp's 2001 study for Ofsted looked at research for the previous 12 years in the UK and the United States. She found a link between secondary pupils' achievement and homework for those who did a reasonable amount, but underachievers included those who did a lot and those who did a little. "At primary level there is no conclusive evidence that homework boosts achievement," she said.

Some primary heads disagree. Robert Trawford, head of Walsall Wood Primary School in Walsall, sees homework as a key way to involve parents in their children's education. That involvement, he believes, is one of the main reasons for his school's rapid improvement.

"Most parents now come to parents' evenings. That didn't used to be the case. Children have home link books that say, `your child has been asked to discuss this'. I have never had a parent say that they didn't want homework. It's an awful shock to enter key stage 3 in a secondary school if you haven't been doing homework. It is part of becoming an organised learner."

The school fosters parental involvement from the moment children enter the nursery, when "Curiosity the Cat" asks them what happened on the way to school, what they saw and what they talked about with their parents.

"When I came to this school I saw a father pick up his child and carry him home without saying a word. That wouldn't have happened at my previous school," says Mr Trawford.

Independent schools firmly believe that homework is a powerful tool in their quest for academic success and preparing pupils for work. Jill Berry, head of Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford and this year's president of the Girls' Schools Association, says: "I am a fan of homework for children of all ages."

Girls at her school do homework from the age of seven. It may be a little independent reading - an important life skill, she says - or consolidated learning of spellings, yet they still manage to take part in plenty of other after-school activities.

The amount increases from 15 minutes four nights a week in Year 3 to up to six hours per subject per week for a sixth form pupil. Sixth-formers will do between 18 and 24 hours a week and work in the holidays and at weekends - well above the time prescribed by the Government for state school pupils of this age (between 1.5 and 2.5 hours a day).

Miss Berry says: "I do think they would do less well academically if they didn't have time to absorb and process what they have learnt, which is a crucial part of homework and to learn to work independently."

But she believes it is much more than a way of securing better exam results. "Most of our girls will have demanding careers, not nine-to-five jobs, and they will need to make decisions about how much of their time outside the workplace they need or are prepared to spend on their professional work. Many of them will also need to balance work and family lives, so what they have learnt in terms of self-discipline, priorities and organisation should serve them well."

A re independent schools, with their eye on parents as fee-paying customers, keener than state schools to heap homework on their pupils? Mrs Berry has taught in four state schools and doubts whether teachers at her schools set more homework that those in state schools. "Our girls are more likely to spend the required time on it than children in some schools. We have a fair number of girls who spend too long on their homework and work too hard if we don't watch them."

Of course, she says, homework does have to be appropriate and meaningful. And there's the rub. One of the reasons that it is difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of homework is that much of it has limited value. Researchers agree that only high-quality homework makes a difference to pupil achievement.

Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the IoE, says: "Getting pupils to do homework is an incredibly expensive and generally unproductive public relations exercise. Schools push homework because they think parents like it, but most schools don't plan homework well enough for it to be worth doing. This is not to say that homework cannot be good, just that most of it currently isn't."

Dr Hallam says homework can be divided into three types - preparing for future learning, consolidating previous learning and the independent project. The most commonly used (consolidation) is the least effective. Future learning works best though the effects are still small.

Dr Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College, London, says: "Homework that is a follow-up from the lesson you have just had is a complete waste of time. My children did endless maths exercises and got most of them wrong. It should be a preparation for the lesson that is to come."

The principle may be clear, but putting it into practice can prove tricky, she adds. "In English, teachers often say read this part of a book that we are going to study in the next lesson. Ninety per cent of children don't do it." Yet she feels there should be a place for homework because the school day is so short.

It is all about being creative, says Mr Trawford. "It shouldn't be some awful repetitive task." Year 6 children at his school may do a little project of two or three pages with an illustration. "It's about broadening their experience. You may link it with going to the library. If you are doing Henry VIII, you might suggest they go home and pretend Mum is Anne Boleyn and ask her questions."

P art of the value of homework, she says, depends on how it is marked. Dr Marshall says: "It's not worth marking pupils' work if you don't do anything with the marks."

Assessment for learning, the practice of working out pupils' needs to improve their understanding instead of just recording the stage they have reached, is a useful tool in the classroom and for homework. Based on research by Professor Paul Black and Professor Wiliam when they were both at King's College, it means, for example, giving feedback to pupils through constructive comments and discussion rather than giving a specific grade or mark out of 10.

The research found that, if teachers give back work with a grade and a comment, pupils only remember the grade. Their work improves if teachers make suggestions and pupils get the chance to change what they have done.

In maths, a teacher might mark the answers green (perfectly understood), yellow (partly understood) or red (floundering). Those who had a green mark then explain to those who had a yellow mark while the teacher explains to those whose answers are red. The Government is encouraging schools to use AfL but it is time-consuming and teachers must juggle a host of other initiatives.

The complexities of the homework debate challenge even successful schools. Heads must be alert to changes to the curriculum, exams and new technology. Coursework, a staple of secondary school homework, has fallen out of favour partly because so many pupils were using the internet to plagiarise others' work. In future, much of it will be done in class.

At Shenfield High School in Essex, John Fairhurst, who chairs the Association of School and College Leaders' education committee, believes the right kind of homework is motivating and he and his staff are always trying to get it right. "Parents are expecting repetitive pencil and paper exercises, but kids don't respond to them," he says.

He regrets having published a schedule of the amount of homework that pupils should do each night. "We have tried to maintain a traditional homework timetable, but it doesn't work." For example, the schedule for technology may say that pupils should do 40 minutes every Wednesday night. In practice, they need to spend two hours at the beginning of a half-term designing and drawing an artefact while its construction has to take place for the rest of that half-term in school.

While small homework slots work for some subjects (languages), they are impractical for others (art and music). So staff have decided not to publish a homework timetable next year. Instead, different departments will set homework which will be monitored. The nature of the tasks will vary. He believes that practice is important in some subjects and the school is delighted with MyMaths, a programme that pupils use online. Technology is creating possibilities for useful, or enjoyable homework.

So has the debate moved on? In secondary schools, the most effective homework may not be done at home. For primary schools, the evidence is scarce and inconclusive. A study in Tower Hamlets found that GCSE results improved more rapidly in schools with homework clubs than those who relied on traditional homework. Either way, Mr Rowe is confident that his pupils will profit from his decision. "The basic philosophy is to give children back their childhood," he concludes.

Related content:

Helpful Homework Guide for parents

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