2nd October 2009 at 01:00
I'm a KS4 English teacher and having trouble getting pupils to hand in their homework. The school expects it to be set twice a week, but with such a poor return rate, I'm getting frustrated. What action do I take?

Homework was once seen as the staple of any good school. In fact, parents would be worried if they didn't think their children were doing enough of it. But in recent years, the benefits of homework have been the subject of debate and some schools are even introducing a no homework policy, primarily because the time and effort needed to enforce it doesn't always seem worthwhile.

Whether you think it is or isn't beneficial to pupils isn't much help in this situation, as you will need to stick to the school policy regardless. Janet Grant, education consultant for Vision Works consultancy, advises talking to your head of department and pushing for a whole-school approach, as giving out detentions ends up being more of an inconvenience to the teacher than the pupils, who often don't mind "sitting and dozing for an hour", she says. "Widespread failure to do homework is often symptomatic of a need for a whole-school approach that teaches pupils to value themselves, creating self-confidence and empathy."

Ms Grant suggests that if the school wants to enforce a homework policy, you should suggest a graded system within the department or even the school with compulsory after-school time dished out for pupils who need to catch up. Pupils who don't turn up go through the usual discipline procedures and get a letter sent home. "This is put in place to enable pupils to create a helpful habit - it doesn't have to be punitive," says Ms Grant.

One technique is to make homework more manageable. You could set anything from circling important words in a written extract that you hand out in class, to watching something on TV and preparing for a discussion. Aside from the fact that your pupils are more likely to complete this kind of work, it also means that you can faithfully make a record of homework that was set and carried out.

Anna Carlile, lecturer in inclusive education at Goldsmiths, University College London, advises assessing whether the homework that you set is relevant and engaging for the pupils: "Is there an opportunity for pupils to bring something of their home lives into school, bridging the home-school link? Can they measure, assess, photograph, study, question, survey, watch or analyse something about their community or neighbourhood?" she says. "This kind of homework can also be a great opportunity to get to know your pupils." Issues such as knife crime, police stop-and-search or unemployment, all of which may strike a chord with your class, can get them engaged and debating.

Setting this type of homework means that pupils whose home environment isn't conducive to doing homework are more likely to make an effort. Ms Carlile says that you should think about the resources pupils will need to do the homework and whether they can access it at home. "If they need the internet or the library, do they all have access to it? Some families are unable to support their children with homework," she says, and if they're already finding it difficult to motivate themselves, these pupils are unlikely to spend their own free time in the school library doing their homework.

As well as tackling this problem from a whole-school or department perspective, you could try to find out ways to motivate your pupils personally. Failing to complete homework is indicative of a pupil's general lack of motivation. Sue Atkins, a former teacher and behaviour coach at Positive Parents, says you need to talk frankly to your pupils: "Not enough teachers talk to their pupils about what they want to do with their life," she says. "If the teacher can start to motivate them towards a compelling future and the benefits of homework, rather than resorting to detentions, that will work wonders."

Ms Atkins says that if you are confident enough to ask your pupils what will motivate them, they will come up with ideas. Once they have ownership over what's going on in class, they're more likely to participate. "Kids are motivated in two ways - either towards something or against it," says Ms Atkins. "If you brainstorm and have fun with it, and if some of the kids buy into it, they'll be on your side and that will filter through to the rest of the class."

Next week After-school clubs.

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