Homework in a divided society
Take the most obvious situation: the eldest child of a large family living in a small house. With no space or quiet in which to work and parents who need help with younger siblings, the child is at an obvious disadvantage from classmates with more appropriate circumstances.
The usual answer is to find odd moments to do the work at school, on the bus going home or when the teacher isn't looking, neither of which is conducive to effective learning. For the parents, too, this can be yet another example of their inability to provide and a further knock to their already fragile sense of self-worth. But homework provides other humiliations for parents, chief among them the inability to help because they don't understand the tasks.
Most accept that they will have been left behind by the time their children are working on GCSE tasks, unless one subject happens to be a specialism of their own work or interest. But they still expect to be able to help in the younger years. Too often, however, they find themselves confused by the content or the method of learning. The father who shouts at his daughter because she doesn't understand long division the way he learnt it does more harm by "helping" than leaving her alone. Yet he knows parents should show interest.
But here lies another division. The parent who frequently writes to tell me he doesn't want his son to be set any homework because "he's got to have a life outside school" contrasts sharply with the one who meticulously checks his daughter's homework diary and complains whenever it seems our published timetable has not been adhered to. The children are in the same class.
How should their teachers act? Demand from the boy what he won't deliver or else have different expectations of the children because of their parents?
That's not the only problem for teachers. What to set for homework and how to resource it becomes more pressing as budgets contract. In the days when every child had a textbook (in the grammar schools of course!), a chapter to be read, a section to be copied or notes to be taken was standard homework fare. Now we need worksheets, investigative tasks or specific pieces of writing, all of which cost time and money to produce. We also constantly face the dilemma of "particular homework tasks" versus "finishing off" work done in class.
The latter is very divisive: for the bright it can mean little or no work. For the more challenged, unless tasks are carefully differentiated, "finishing off" can take a long time. And this youngster often has difficulty understanding and writing down what is expected. Too often, by the time she gets home, she will have forgotten what was meant by the hurried note in her homework diary. If she's lucky, there will be a friend she can telephone to remind her. If not, she will once again suffer the fear and sense of insecurity which all children with learning difficulties can do without.
Despite these drawbacks, there are, as OFSTED indicates, important gains to be made through extending work beyond the classroom. Usually, we say it fosters independent study skills, develops a sense of responsibility and links home to school in a meaningful way. But we also know that, without it, we could not complete our syllabuses.
So why don't we take a more radical approach and do something from which all students might benefit? Instead of homework why don't we institute "prep" on the public school model? This would mean extending the school day and providing "homework rooms". The Prince of Wales's "Homework Centres" are a move in that direction, but if we were really serious about the importance of homework in raising standards across the board then we would extend this model to all schools not just those in deprived areas.
The reason it probably won't happen is partly that it would be expensive, with supervisors to pay and buildings to keep open. But it might also explode the myth that taking work home is good for everybody and reveal it as just another example of our divided society in which the highly motivated and supported succeed and the rest struggle.
Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, Devon