Is homework a mug's game?

30th March 2012 at 01:00

The best homework assignments require pupils to bring their parents tea. At least, that's my mum's view. When I was about 11, my science teacher set the class the task of making a hot drink for a parent that evening.

The catch was that we had to write up the task as if it were a science experiment, complete with a list of apparatus, a step-by-step guide to our method and a diagram.

I have no recollection of whether we had to come up with a hypothesis or a conclusion, but I do remember our teacher pointing out all the small details we had forgotten to mention, whether it was forgetting to list the mug or specify how hot we had made the water.

My mum, meanwhile, was simply happy to be brought a cup of tea.

Homework often attracts more attention from parents than any other aspect of a teacher's practice, for the simple reason that they witness it. One of the most frequent complaints from primary parents to Ofsted is that their children are not set enough homework (although, notably, the inspectors themselves rarely agree). Some mothers and fathers get so worked up about it that they set pupils extra work themselves, then eagerly hand it in to the teachers expecting it to be marked.

Yet the wider opinion of parents seems now to be swinging in the opposite direction, the mood turning against excessive homework. The government's decision to scrap guidelines for hours of homework per night received a noticeably positive public response last month, even though the guidelines had only been optional.

However, schools should hesitate before rushing to scrap homework altogether. A body of international research shows it has benefits, providing it is set for a reason, not to just for the sake of it. As with much in life, quality matters more than quantity.

The authors of A Nation at Rest: The American Way of Homework are correct when they write: "That homework is mundane does not make it unimportant." Yet homework can also shed a different light on the mundane - as I am frequently reminded when I set out the apparatus to make a cup of tea.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw

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