Is it time to scrap homework?

15th February 2013 at 00:00
Homework has long been a bone of contention. Its detractors argue that it widens the achievement gap and now France is looking to ban it. But is it time we followed suit?

Homework is a nightly curse in thousands of homes and a cause of nerve trouble, sleeplessness and family friction."

This complaint - from TES back in 1929 - could easily have come from a modern anti-homework crusader, furious at the imposition of schoolwork on home life.

It is a clear illustration of how homework has remained a political and emotive issue for well over a century.

To some, it is an essential part of school life that ensures exam success and the country's economic standing in the world. To others, it is a burden that affects the health of children, damages family life and results in pupils from poor backgrounds falling behind.

In Britain, campaigners first raised concerns about the negative effects of too much homework in the late 19th century, when schools started setting more of it to ensure pupils' success in public exams. These days, as homework becomes increasingly formalised, in the primary sector in particular, the debate shows no sign of receding.

Recent critics include television presenter Kirstie Allsopp, who told The Sunday Telegraph that the burden on parents to supervise homework was too great. Some homework had become almost "adversarial", she said.

The Parents Outloud charity has called for schools to scrap formal homework entirely, warning that it can lead to rebellion and burnout. Its director Margaret Morrissey has called the setting of holiday projects an "unforgivable" imposition on free time.

Perhaps the event that brought the debate into sharpest focus was in France in October, when president Francois Hollande declared an end to homework in primary schools. Independent learning, he said, should take place at the end of the school day on school premises. Such a move, he said, would even out social inequalities.

"An education programme is, by definition, a societal programme. Work should be done at school rather than at home," he pronounced.

Scrapping homework

Monsieur le President is not alone in Europe. Denmark has piloted "homework-free" schools, resulting in a reported fall in dropout rates and rise in overall grades.

At the other end of the spectrum, South Korean schoolchildren do hours of extra study at home and in private crammers, and achieve some of the highest maths, science and reading scores in the developed world. The country also has the highest youth suicide rate, although it is unclear if the two factors are related.

Clearly, views differ the world over. But is homework really a waste of time that should be consigned to the scholastic scrapheap along with caning and doffing one's cap to the headmaster's wife?

The most recent trend towards the formalisation of primary homework in this country began in 1988 with the introduction of the national curriculum. But it became embedded in 1998, when the education secretary at the time, David Blunkett, announced guidelines for primary and secondary schools, and support was provided for the introduction of homework clubs.

The guidelines - scrapped last year by Michael Gove - suggested that pupils as young as four should be doing around one hour a week, stretching to 30 minutes a day for pupils in Years 5 and 6. They recommended pupils in the first year of secondary should be doing up to 90 minutes a night, increasing to up to two and a half hours a night for those in the GCSE years.

Mr Blunkett was concerned that a 1995 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 43 per cent of 10-year-olds were given no regular homework. Meanwhile, more than 50 per cent watched more than three hours of television a day, he said at the time.

"Homework is an essential part of education," he said at the time. "All the evidence suggests that homework makes an important contribution to the progress and achievement of children at school."

And it didn't take long for primaries to turn things around. In her 2004 book Homework: The Evidence, Professor Susan Hallam says that in 1997, 64 per cent of primaries had a homework policy. Only two years later, 90 per cent had policies, including 100 per cent of junior and 75 per cent of infant schools.

Indeed, in the current climate of increasing Ofsted scrutiny, league table competition and forced academy conversions for underperforming schools, homework seems to be all the rage. It is, to most people's minds, part of the general trend towards stricter uniforms, zero-tolerance behaviour policies and house systems.

All the major academy chains TES spoke to stressed the importance of homework at both primary and secondary level, especially for children from deprived areas. Gove may have scrapped the guidelines as part of an overarching plan to "free up" headteachers, but there is no danger that schools will be dropping it.

But is this trend towards setting more homework, especially in primary schools, based on academic evidence? Setting aside the potential benefits of encouraging independent learning or increasing parental engagement with school, does it actually improve attainment?

The research is, at best, mixed. In Hallam's review of research into the issue, she concluded that at secondary level there was "a positive but low correlation" between doing homework and improved attainment. But she also warned that the relationship between the amount of homework done and attainment was not linear.

"More homework doesn't mean better. There comes a point where it no longer has a benefit," the University of London Institute of Education academic told TES.

She also found that the most recent studies into homework and achievement concluded that it was difficult to separate the effect of homework on attainment from other factors, such as home and family background.

Other evidence for a causal link has come from the government-funded Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education project, which showed a marked difference in attainment between 14-year-olds doing two to three hours' homework and similar pupils doing none. The pupils who did homework were found to be nearly one national curriculum level higher in maths, three-quarters of a level higher in science and more than half a level higher in English at key stage 3.

The study found that the effects of large amounts of homework were bigger than the effects of other factors such as gender, free-school-meal status and mother's qualifications.

Harris Cooper, professor of social psychology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, also conducted reviews of homework research in the US. In an article summarising his findings, he concludes: "With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement was found to be positive and was generally statistically different from zero.

"To conclude on the basis of the evidence in hand that doing homework can cause improved academic achievement would not be imprudent."

However, his work also concluded that while homework for young children could improve scores in tests involving simple mathematical skills, "the homeworkachievement link on broader measures of achievement appears to be weak".

A `tool in the armoury'

So with this morass of conflicting evidence, what are schools to do? Should they simply see homework as a means of raising raw attainment scores? A public-relations tool to convince parents that they are a "good" and "rigorous" school? Or a way of training pupils in independent learning?

At Ark Schools, which runs nine primary academies, three of which are part of all-through schools, homework is viewed as a vital means of raising standards. Just because many pupils arrive in school with low attainment levels doesn't mean they escape homework. If anything, the philosophy is that they should do more to catch up.

The chain's Lesley Smith says homework was regarded as one of the "tools in the armoury" for a school working in an underprivileged area.

"On average we have the lowest prior attainment of any of the academy chains so children have to progress further than other kids: they have a longer journey to travel from 11 to 16," she says.

"Homework to embed what children have learned in lessons and a consistent policy on homework is a tool in your armoury alongside excellent teaching and well-planned lessons."

Smith is keen to stress that homework must always be purposeful and not be seen as a punishment or an afterthought.

"Homework is very carefully planned, with the same rigour as lesson planning," she says. "If it is seen as a chore or a punishment or it isn't marked or the pupils don't think they are getting anything out of it, it is of no use.

"You can make homework really interesting using games and competitions and kids can be very enthusiastic," she adds.

Sir Robin Bosher, a former primary head and now primary director for the Harris Federation of academies, says the chain operates on the premise that "homework is a good thing".

Even in primary, he says, homework plays a role in raising the ambitions of pupils in areas of high deprivation.

"It can be very motivating and develop those positive beliefs about achievement and raise aspirations," he says.

To the anti-homework brigade, this is a nebulous argument, but Bosher explains: "It's all about feedback and the role it has in building a relationship between the pupil and the teacher.

"When you achieve something independently in your own time, the feedback you get from the teacher has a higher value. The acknowledgement from the teacher can raise your self-esteem."

However, Bosher is anxious that pupils are not unfairly disadvantaged if their parents are less able to help them with their homework or if pupils do not have a quiet, appropriate place to study.

To overcome this issue, the parents of Reception and Year 1 pupils are invited to stay five minutes longer at Harris primaries, twice a week, when they drop their children off in the morning. They are invited to sit and read with their children, and teachers offer advice on how to help them help their children progress.

"We will say how to share a book, this is where you would correct an error, this is where you wouldn't. so parents feel confident to hear their children read. Three-quarters of our parents stay," Bosher says.

The school also operates workshops during the last 30 minutes of the school day, in which teachers explain to parents how concepts such as multiplication or long division are taught. Working parents are offered sessions at more convenient times once a term, and booklets of advice on how to support children with their homework are also sent home. A homework club is offered at the school, where pupils have access to staff and IT facilities.

But Bosher points out that overloading children with homework and other activities is something to avoid: "I don't think it's useful for a child to go from one class to another, to homework, to piano practice, like a hamster in a wheel."

Social inequalities

So, schools may have slightly different approaches but they almost universally seem to believe that homework has a purpose. There are drawbacks, however.

One of the main concerns - as highlighted by Hollande - is that homework ingrains social inequalities between pupils: clever, motivated children in higher sets or at better schools tend to be given more homework, while less able, less motivated pupils are given less. The result is a further widening of the attainment gap.

More advantaged children are also more likely to have a quiet place to study at home, with access to the internet, again giving them the chance to pull ahead.

At Malsis School, an independent preparatory school in Yorkshire, there were no such concerns about deprivation, but the institution has dropped homework to even out inequalities between its boarding and day pupils. Instead, pupils complete their "prep" during an extended school day, which ends at 6.15pm for older pupils.

There is evidence that this model may quietly be taking hold in parts of the state sector. The founders of Holyport College, Berkshire, a new, state-funded free school sponsored by Eton College, said last week that all pupils, boarding and day, will have to complete all their homework on site.

"Parental help can be a problem. If you want your students to do an unsupported English comprehension paper, you don't want their parents to do it," Malsis head Marcus Peel says.

"By having everyone complete their homework in the same circumstances, you are putting everyone on a level pegging."

Peel says that the majority of parents are relieved not to have to worry about enforcing homework during the working week. This encroachment on family life is one of the bugbears of anti-homework campaigners.

"Homework hits the intersection between the state and the family. It can be a battlefield at home," Hallam says.

Parents Outloud's Morrissey also believes too much homework can be damaging. "You spend all day at school five days a week and that should be sufficient," she says. "Taking home a bit of reading or a little bit of internet research is fine, but not proper written work."

She argues that there is a risk of older children "rebelling and becoming dropouts" because of regular nightly homework. "With the younger ones," says Morrissey, who has seen four-year-olds being sent home with written work, "there is the big issue of whether the child has actually done the work themselves.

"Parents who see their child struggling are going to want to help them with the right answer."

She concedes that some parents might be part of the problem, as they often judge the quality of the school on the amount of homework set.

"It would be very interesting to see if schools were prepared to scrap homework for a couple of terms to see how much of a difference it actually made," she adds.

So as the debate rumbles on, what is the future for homework? In fact, there may be a middle ground developing. Many educationalists have indicated that technology might be quietly transforming the type of work that is set and the willingness of pupils to complete tasks at home. It may also relieve teachers of marking while still allowing them to analyse how well their pupils are doing.

SAM Learning, for example, is an online service offering thousands of exercises for pupils to complete independently. It was initially set up to help pupils revise for exams but has since been rolled out in primary schools.

Teachers set tasks online, which pupils complete at home, receiving their grades instantly with no marking from the teacher. Staff can see how many tries it took pupils to get the correct answer and adapt their teaching accordingly.

There is also a social networking aspect: pupils can log on together from their homes and have competitions to complete the tasks the quickest, for example.

Other futuristic approaches include "flipped learning" and "blended learning": pupils' homework consists of using technology to listen to or watch a "lesson" online, which is then followed up with constructive work in the classroom. The aim is to give teachers more time to interact with pupils face to face rather than "lecturing".

Homework is entrenched in our culture, and teachers, parents and pupils all expect it to cast a shadow across their evenings for the immediate future. But the digital revolution means that it is almost certain to evolve and expand into new territory over the coming years. It's just possible that it may be the case that homework (as we know it) is dead; long live homework.

Photo credit: Getty

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