Robert Naylor says the latest panacea is an insult to both pupils and staff
School staffrooms are, in my experience, rarely places where serious educational debate takes place. But recently my colleagues were vigorously debating an educational issue of some significance: homework clubs. Or more specifically, should teachers put their names forward to supervise groups of up to 15 for pound;18 for an hour after school?
The debate brought forth strong views. Those in favour argued that there was nothing wrong with supervising pupils after school. After all, many teachers voluntarily help individuals and run clubs and societies. They welcomed the opportunity to be paid for their extra efforts. Some also argued that this would afford those lower down the pay-scale the chance to supplement an inadequate income.
Those against homework clubs gave a variety of reasons. Some said they had been taking sports teams for years and it was outrageous that they should continue to do this on a voluntary basis while others were being paid for running homework clubs. Some felt pound;18 for an extra hour added to the school day was an insult because it implied their paid work was normally finished by four o'clock.
Others said the community would expect the school to offer pupils homework clubs long after the money allocated to get them up and running had been exhausted. This, they argued, would ultimately result in an attempt to change teachers' conditions of service. Were local authorities or the Government to make such an attempt, teachers would be hard pressed to argue against a statutory obligation to staff homework clubs if they had been doing it voluntarily for some time.
I have sympathy with many of the views expressed by my colleagues. The issue is, however, larger than any staffroom discussion can adequately address.
The idea of homework clubs is not new. I have heard of them operating in numerous places across the country with varying degrees of success. Funding comes from various enterprise trusts, or from multinational companies eager to be seen to put something back into the communities in which they operate. More recently the Government has been keen to promote the idea of a homework club in every school.
At first glance it seems a laudable suggestion. Each year we hear in the national media and from the mouths of politicians how schools and teachers are failing their pupils. Standards are falling and pupils are achieving less than they might - although, confusingly, we also hear that more pupils are passing examinations than ever before.
Therefore what pupils need is more homework and homework clubs to do it in. If we give them homework clubs then they will learn more and be more successful.
To make the argument even more convincing we are reminded that many school pupils do not have a home environment which encourages homework.
But is the argument for clubs really an educational one? If pupils are underachieving, does it not have something to do with the ever rising class sizes and the cuts in local authority education funding year on year? The purpose of homework is supposedly to give pupils an opportunity to revise their knowledge and practice skills before moving forward.
But today there is an ever increasing demand on pupils to do more and more homework simply because they do not have sufficient time in class to interact adequately with their teachers. Project work and investigations with specialised equipment make considerable demands, so in many courses the only way to finish in time for examinations is for teachers to burden their pupils with more and more homework.
There will always be criticism that teachers are failing their pupils. It will be said that if teachers did their job properly they would have no difficulty with the volume of work. But the demands on teachers today are greater than ever before. We are working against a background of ever changing philosophies of how pupils learn best and how their teachers should teach them.
For the last 15 years courses have been endlessly written and rewritten by school staff eager to develop their curricula and teaching skills for the benefit of their pupils. Such activity is laudable. But it has often been to the pupils' detriment, because the meagre non-contact time available is used up adapting resources to fit whatever pedagogical model is in vogue.
Much of the blame for the alleged failure of pupils and teachers can be laid at the door of successive governments, since the Government ultimately allocates education funding and determines policy. But for the Government to argue that homework clubs are even a partial solution to underachievement in our schools is an insult to both pupils and teachers. I do not know of any teacher who can fulfil their professional responsibilities within their contractual hours. Nor do I know one who even tries to do so.
Teachers are professional people. The vast majority work many extra hours, week in and week out, for the benefit of their pupils. They run extra classes at lunchtimes. They stay behind to tutor groups or individuals. They arrange social, cultural and sporting activities in their own time. They do this because they care for their pupils. It is all part of the job, a professional response to the needs of those in their care. To isolate one aspect of this additional input and bestow on it the status of paid overtime is to reduce the role of the teacher from professional to childminder.
Any argument for homework clubs is ultimately an argument for more school. What is really being identified is the fact that pupils need more of what takes place at school: better opportunities to keep up with course work and to revise and consolidate skills.
But it is disingenuous to pretend that homework clubs are being established for educational reasons alone. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the true purpose is the perceived need to keep young people under adult supervision for a greater part of the day. This may be desirable - if reports of rising trends in youth crime and delinquency are to be believed. But it is an argument for greater out of school care, not homework clubs run by professional teachers.
Pupils I spoke to were ambivalent about the idea of homework clubs. Hard-working pupils say they are mentally tired at the end of the school day. To them, the prospect of being asked to get their books out again immediately after the final bell borders on cruelty.
The ones I spoke to said they would rather do homework at home, after they have a chance to relax or participate in some other non-cerebral activity for a while. There are undoubtedly some who are unable to complete homework at home for a variety of reasons. But they too deserve a rest at the end of a long school day - not the pressure of immediately fulfiling their teachers' homework demands.
If you have difficulty putting yourself in their shoes, remember how it feels doing professional activity after a full day's teaching.
I could be wrong. It may be that homework clubs will flourish and some pupils will achieve more. But I believe that the pupils who are initially eager will gradually stop attending. If their parents force them to attend, they may become so jaded that their daytime enthusiasm and application will diminish as school becomes a never ending chore.
If the Government really wants an improvement in learning and teaching in our schools, it should look much more closely and honestly at the problem it thinks it is addressing. Our young people deserve more than the sticking plaster remedy of homework clubs.
Robert Naylor is principal teacher of mathematics at Dunblane High School.