The great homework debate

16th May 1997 at 01:00
There has been much publicity recently for various types of "homework club" and there's no doubt they have proved beneficial for many pupils. However, pupil performance can have a great deal to do with the ways in which homework policies are implemented within schools.

As a principal teacher of English, I was very satisfied with the performance of my department, and the appearance of national comparison factors and relative ratings served to reinforce my complacency. But over a period of time I became aware of changes in the way pupils perceived English, and statistics seemed to indicate a deterioration of our exam results. Since the English department was continuing much as it always had, and teachers were working hard and continuing to set and mark homework rigorously, I could not understand why these changes were taking place.

I knew that other departments had changed their practices, particularly relating to homework, and so talked to various principal teachers and to the school's management, to gain a clearer picture of what they were doing. I saw that homework was often of a discrete nature, and broken into relatively small blocks. I saw different ways in which it was checked up on by teachers and different approaches to linking it with on-going classwork.

I had always believed (and still do) that pupils should be given several days to complete a substantial piece of work. This gives them plenty of time to complete the work, it helps avoid clashes with other subjects so that pupils can organise their work over a period of days, and it helps instil into pupils the need for personal planning. But in practice things were not working out like this.

In some subjects pupils were given homework every period, to be checked the following lesson. Each night many obviously felt that their priority was the work due in the next day. This, combined with an inevitable tendency to leave things to the last minute, meant that English homework was being left to the night before it was due, and would then be done in a rush, perhaps even handed in late, because the pupil found it could not be done satisfactorily in one evening (on which there would be homework of the next-day variety, as usual).

By ensuring that pupils were doing work every night, other subjects were improving their status, making their homework seem more important and squeezing out the sort of work which was allocated over several days.

The status of homework was further changed by the use of the word "test". In the English department we had always been at pains to compile on-going records of pupil progress and whenever a piece of work was done it was graded and contributed to the pupils' overall assessment. We played down the notion of testing, to ease the pressure on pupils. But in other subjects, regular formal tests were being given a very high profile, for example, on a six-weekly basis. When a test was approaching, pupils would be given a revision programme to be done in addition to normal on-going coursework, and during the run-up would treat preparation for it as a higher priority than work in other subjects, such as a story to be written for the English teacher. On the day or two before the test all other demands on pupils could fade into near insignificance.

The use of tests was in some cases linked to a very rigorous system of streaming within a department. It was made very clear to pupils that there would be promotions and demotions as a result of the on-going testing programme. This was highly motivating for the more able particularly, and pupils have developed a keen awareness of what section they are in. They know, for example, that they are in Credit or CreditGeneral or General sections in S3 and S4. In English, we had avoided applying such labels, in order to promote the idea of each individual succeeding in his or her own way. Perhaps we had been too concerned with pupils' sensitivities.

All these observations were put together with pupil questionnaires on homework, which provided information on the amount done and attitudes to different sorts. English teachers were then in a position to consider the next steps. A number of possibilities presented themselves: * We could institute small blocks of homework to be done on a very regular basis. Larger tasks could be broken down, so that individual bits could be set for individual nights (eg the plan for an essay could be set for the first night of the homework block); * Formal "tests" could be instituted and given a high profile. In our case we would be able to use language work quite easily for this approach; * We could give more importance to the results of different types of assessment and consider more rigorous streaming of sections, rather than the broad banding we currently use in S3 and S4, and label sections clearly and explicitly; * We could organise coursework in blocks, ending in grading "nodes" which would then allow for moving pupils from section to section without any risk of work being repeated or missed.

I am still rather shocked that we have come to this point, since the general philosophy is so different from when I entered teaching over 20 years ago. In fact, we have introduced smaller blocks of homework and more formal tests, but have balked at rigorous streaming and grading. We are keenly aware, however, that we are involved in a psychological battle for status in the eyes of pupils.

The fact that we are working on policies like these may be an indication of changed attitudes and different philosophies in our society. Perhaps it's another manifestation of enterprise and competitiveness. What we should remember is that our practices had been very effective and there is nothing to suggest that they are intrinsically wrong in any way. What is at issue is the way a department can be affected by competing philosophies within a school.

Angus Gray is principal teacher of English at Tain Royal Academy, Highland Council

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