Ditching the homework to help teachers `get a life'

19th June 2015 at 01:00
`Traditionalist' academy spares educators the stress of marking

When Katharine Birbalsingh was planning the foundation of Michaela Community School, she was determined to take a traditional approach on everything, from curriculum to discipline and uniform.

The headteacher became famous when she received a standing ovation at the 2010 Conservative Party conference after condemning state education as "broken". So it is unsurprising that the free school she has opened aims to bring "the values.of a private education" to a deprived corner of north-west London.

But now it has emerged that one part of Michaela's approach is far from traditional: the school is ditching homework.

Michaela's assistant head Joe Kirby has explained how the school has decided to "replace.setting, chasing, checking, marking and logging homework with revision, reading and online maths".

"For teachers who've got to set, correct, mark, track and chase homework, it's taking time out of lessons," he told TES this week. "I think there's a clarion call in the teaching profession now to let teachers plan and mark, and not have to handle any bureaucracy. But we say: let teachers get on and teach, and not drown in hours and hours of marking."

Michaela, in Wembley Park, is not the first school to have questioned the wisdom of the traditional homework timetable. Earlier this month, Eve Jardine-Young, principal of the independent Cheltenham Ladies' College, made the national news when she said she would be reviewing the school's teaching practices in order to tackle teenagers' "epidemic of anxiety". "Will we even be doing prep?" she asked.

The resulting "school to ban homework" headlines forced Ms Jardine-Young to quickly clarify that homework would remain for the foreseeable future. But at Michaela, staff are sticking to their guns. Here, the elimination of homework is not about saving pupils - it is about saving teachers. "Common practices result in heavy workload, high burnout, and very, very high levels of teacher turnover," Mr Kirby said.

"Every single decision we make, we want to look at through this lens: is it going to reduce workload for teachers?

"We want to create a new blueprint, where it's possible for teachers to have a life. We want teachers to be more interesting in the classroom, more energised, more enthusiastic, as opposed to more exhausted, worn out and drained."

The aim is to help pupils retain information without creating large piles of marking for their teachers. So students are given self-quizzing tasks in a different subject each evening.

"Self-quizzing helps to reduce teachers' workload while improving pupils' memory and subject knowledge," Mr Kirby said.

Pupils are also expected to read for 30 minutes, and to do 30 minutes of online maths practice every evening.

Mixed messages

All this comes despite the very different views on homework expressed by former education secretary Michael Gove, whose departure from the Department for Education Ms Birbalsingh mourned as a "great tragedy".

In March last year, Mr Gove wrote to a 14-year-old schoolboy who had led a school walkout to demand more homework. "Homework is a vital part of consolidating what you have learned at school," he told the boy.

Michaela's approach in this area is not the only move that Ms Birbalsingh's education hero might not have approved of. There is no graded observation at the school, nor performance-related pay and "divisive bonuses". Similarly, there are no individual lesson plans. Instead, teachers simply draw up a plan for an entire unit of work.

"When you have to write down every single lesson, you're evidencing what you do every day," Mr Kirby said. "But it's not actually getting the work done."

Michaela teachers do not have to write lengthy reports for parents, either. Instead, parents are given online, ongoing access to pupils' grades. And there are no temporary classroom displays. In their place, an inspiring quotation is painted on the wall.

"There's a lot you can do preventatively to stop the stress, the workload and the burnout," Mr Kirby said. "And I think that's much more positive for pupils in the long run.

"We really want our teachers to love teaching, and our pupils to love learning. If we have happy teachers who love learning, that's quite infectious, and it rubs off on the kids."

Michaela kicks the hornets' nest

Tasks at the North London free school are divided into "hornets" and "butterflies".

Hornets are high-effort, low-impact strategies. These are banned. Butterflies are low-effort and high-impact. These are encouraged.

Hornets include "appraisal targets based on pupil data"; "expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons"; "starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzyjazzy nonsense"; "extensive photocopying of worksheets"; "shoehorning of IT into lessons"; and "unnecessary manual data input or entry".

Butterflies include "strong textbooks"; permanent classroom displays; and parental online access to subject, behaviour and attendance data, which replaces "highly labour-intensive written parental reports".

Most importantly, Joe Kirby, assistant head, says teachers should be left alone to get on with teaching. "It's important that teachers feel trusted, rather than scrutinised, monitored, graded," he says. "If you're a surgeon, you don't have the management of the hospital coming in and grading your operation out of four."

See bit.lyHornetsButterflies


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