Children need to develop as rounded human beings, says Elspeth Insch. And to do so they need time in the evenings for all sorts of non-academic activities
For the past few weeks, the newspapers have been full of scare-stories about the amount of time some pupils spend doing homework. Homework is the current political bandwagon. Both the main parties have leapt on board and are complaining about the lack of interest shown by some schools.
Well, I have news for the politicians. At King Edward VI school in Handsworth, we have just cut the amount of time our pupils are supposed to spend doing homework.
I know we are bucking the trend, but I believe that there is more to life than homework. We know that it's important and that it plays a significant part in the academic success of our school - but we also want our parents and pupils to realise that school is not the be-all and end-all.
The problem is that our pupils are just too conscientious. An hour-and-a-half's allocated homework time was being translated in some cases into three hours work a night. That is too much for girls who spend a lot of the day with their heads down and their brains in top gear.
As a result the school has decided to set five hours work a week in Years 7 and 8; seven-and-a-half hours in Year 9; 10 in Years 10 and 11; and at least 15 for the sixth form. The major change comes for pupils in the first two years, which have seen their nightly homework reduced from an hour-and-a-half to just an hour.
Many of our girls travel for an hour each way to school, making it an effective working day of nine hours. They study intensively in their five one-hour lessons and participate in a wealth of lunch-time activities run by staff and sixth-formers. Some pupils at key stage 3 have a lunch-time activity every day.
We subscribe to Professor Michael Barber's view that busy pupils achieve more academically, which is why the girls' working day is so full. As we are a grammar school, parental expectation is that we will set a considerable amount of homework. When I meet new parents, it is one of the first things they ask about. The amount of work brought home is almost a badge of honour for families who are delighted that their children have been selected for a grammar school. But it should not lead to the exhaustion of a gifted child.
The message that we're sending out now is that, yes, we believe homework is vital. But it must not be at the expense of other interests and hobbies. We're not aiming to turn out academic robots but rounded, interested and interesting human beings. At my initial meeting with parents, I say that I want pupils who "belong". I want them to join the Guides or the Red Cross, for example. I want them to do physical activities - swimming or riding. I want them to go to dancing and music lessons, and I'm particularly pleased when their spiritual life is extended through practising their religion.
All this takes time - and time is something my pupils have in short supply. Many of these activities need to be carried out at the end of the school day. If they're not finishing their homework until nine at night, what chance do they have in maintaining these outside interests?
The insistent march of the homework brigade has meant a heavier and heavier marking workload for the poor old teacher. I often wonder how they find the time. At our school, we believe that a variety of methods of assessment and feedback is appropriate. So some pupils may mark their own work - or their friends', under supervision. But we still believe in formal marking and assessment as well; feedback is what leads to improvement.
Parental involvement is particularly important. We expect girls to do their homework on their own - ideally at a desk in their own room. But that doesn't mean that parents cannot become involved. We expect our parents to monitor homework and we give each pupil a homeworkrecord diary each week. If parents are worried about how much or how little homework their children are doing, they can make a note on the book or contact us directly.
Technological changes mean that more and more people are now working from home. I believe that it is entirely appropriate to teach pupils how to work independently and that the working day does extend beyond the workplace.
But quality, not quantity, is the key here. I want pupils to work smarter, not harder or longer, and to get some balance into their lives. For us, the homework bandwagon has started to roll in the wrong direction.
Elspeth Insch is headmistress of King Edward VI school in Handsworth (a grant-maintained grammar), Birmingham.