New chapter begins for home studies

10th October 2008 at 01:00
Some now believe homework can be counterproductive, and children deserve a work-life balance.

It was 10 years ago that David Blunkett, as education secretary, led the charge for more homework to be set by schools, describing it as an "essential part of education". To the delight of traditionalists, he issued guidelines setting out expectations for children from the age of five.

"All the evidence suggests that it makes an important contribution to the progress and achievement of children at school," he said then.

The years following the publication of the 1998 guidelines led to a significant increase in homework, particularly in primaries, many of which had been homework-free zones previously. Under pressure from ministers, who required Ofsted to check that the guidelines were being adhered to, even infants were expected to do an hour a week, while GCSE pupils were expected to do up to two and a half hours every day (see panel).

But now the pendulum is swinging back, and this traditional form of home study is no longer seen as a panacea for raising standards. Many headteachers are beginning to adopt a lighter touch.

When one of the best academic boys' schools in the country, Tiffin in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, announced it would be scaling back homework, other schools - including some independents which in the past adopted intensive policies - admitted that they had considerably softened their approach.

"The mood has changed around homework," says Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "Our members are recognising that it is too much and not so useful. Parents also feel children should be given back their leisure time. Children have been treated almost as commodities - their worth depended on their academic achievement."

In March, the union, which represents 160,000 teachers, voted overwhelmingly to lobby government to scrap homework in primary schools and restrict it in secondaries.

But the no-homework era has not quite arrived. Instead, traditional homework tasks such as learning spelling, French vocabulary and completing maths worksheets are being replaced by "individual study" for projects.

"We have moved to an interim stage," says Jane Lees, president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and head of Hindley Community High in Wigan, Lancashire. "There is a greater push towards independent learning, rather than set homework."

Independent learning, particularly using the internet for project work, does not sit well with the Government's homework guidelines. So you might expect school leaders to be keen to abolish them. But the ASCL is cautious.

"I would not say the guidelines should be scrapped, but as a matter of course they should be reviewed," says Ms Lees. "Things change. Schools should be allowed to progress at their own pace. We have to allow schools to set the homework that is appropriate for them."

Susan Hallam, of London University's Institute of Education and author of Homework: the Evidence, agrees that signs of a homework backlash are emerging.

"Schools felt they had to set homework because they were told to," she says. "With Ofsted asking about homework during inspections, and with pressure to raise standards, schools began setting even more than the guidelines suggested, often with the support of parents.

"But now people are beginning to look at the kids and see that they are tired and stressed. There is little room for family time. Attitudes change. We want our children to have a life and a family life."

Dr Hallam says the homework debate has undergone several cycles in the past, with pro-homework policies often accompanying a perceived crisis in education.

"We went through that in the 1990s, with lots of exams for students, teachers being paid by results, and schools having to demonstrate performance on exam scores, so lots of homework was set.

"However, international evidence on the impact of homework on educational standards shows there is a point at which it is no longer effective. If you keep doing more and more, it makes no difference. Schools must assess the point at which it is useful."

The current debate in secondaries is not just about whether to set homework, but what kind of work is appropriate. As Ms Bousted puts it: "There should be far more concern about good homework, rather than simply setting homework."

The bigger challenge for most schools is how to support pupils in their independent learning so that homework tasks are carried out to a good standard.

"It is still early days in the development of personalised homework," says Ms Lees. "There may be different ways of doing it, and a different knowledge base required."

FOUR APPROACHES TO ENCOURAGE QUIET STUDY

The Marlowe Academy, a 1,000-pupil 11-18 comprehensive in Ramsgate, Kent, has a no-homework policy.

With an extended day that ends at 5pm, lessons are held in two-hour blocks, with 15- to 20-minute breaks in between.

"One session a day, for each year group, is a study session," says Ian Johnson, the headteacher. "No one routinely takes work home. Pupils get their work done during the day, not at the end of the day.

"It is miles better because they have access to ICT, and have the support of mentors who they can ask if they have a problem.

"As a school, we are taking full responsibility for homework. Many pupils are unable to access ICT or have an appropriate place to complete work at home."

The no-homework policy was driven by "a desire to get people to work smarter, rather than harder", Mr Johnson says. He believes the policy is having an impact on achievement. Once described as the worst-performing secondary in England, exam results have been rising for some years now and the school is becoming more popular locally.

"I believe a no-homework policy reinforces family life and work-life balance," Mr Johnson says.

Malsis School, an independent 4-13 prep school with both day and boarding pupils, in Cross Hills, North Yorkshire, abandoned homework five years ago and has never looked back.

Pupils stay on until 6.15pm, taking part in activities and clubs, rather than sitting doing "prep" (homework).

The school day is structured to allow time for extended work within lessons, says Marcus Peel, the head.

"The idea is that with lessons of up to an hour long, teachers incorporate an element of unsupported work that pupils can get on with on their own. It is more beneficial than hour-long prep sessions after school, where they do perhaps 15-20 minutes of real work and the rest is twiddling their thumbs. That can be counterproductive.

"We seem to get the results we want. We get scholarships (to senior schools). We encourage pupils to be self-motivated."

The only exception to the rule is for pupils in Years 7 and 8 preparing for competitive Common Entrance exams for senior schools. They do an hour of prep every Friday afternoon, supervised by staff. However, even that is far less than other independent schools at that stage.

Parents reacted favourably to the policy, Mr Peel says. "After all, to sit down with a child after a busy day, doing prep is a bit of a nightmare."

Fort Hill Community School in Basingstoke, Hampshire, has 600 pupils aged 11-16 and is known for its strict homework policy.

"There is an expectation at this school that everyone completes it," says Lesley Lawson, the head. "Our philosophy is that it consolidates the learning that takes place in school."

But Fort Hill has moved towards "home learning rather than homework," Ms Lawson says. A pilot for key stage 3 that started this term consists of projects set over a term, with pupils having three weeks to hand it in. Support is provided if pupils are struggling, and the school library has been upgraded to allow parents to come in and help pupils.

"Ultimately, if the child has not done it, they have to come in on an in- service training day or they will have to catch up in the holidays," says Ms Lawson. "And if even then they do not do it, they will be in the isolation room till it is done."

Handing in of work is monitored strictly on a school database.

"We were very punitive three years ago," Ms Lawson says. "Some students were even suspended for not handing in homework. These measures are still there, but much is done to avoid drastic action.

"The toughness comes when the children have made the decision not to do it, despite everything. I believe it is a lifelong lesson to children that we do not just bow out if there is something we do not like."

Many parents choose the school - now oversubscribed - because of its tough stand, Ms Lawson says.

Tiffin School, an 11-18 boys' grammar in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, "massively reduced" the amount of homework at the highly academic school a year ago after a series of classroom audits.

"We found that much of the work being set was repetitive and mechanical and the only reason teachers were setting it was because there was a homework timetable," says Sean Heslop, the headteacher.

The school has shifted from homework for two or three subjects a night to one subject for a maximum of 45 minutes, complemented by a move towards more independent study.

"Yes, we are ignoring the Government's guidelines," he admits. "The figures in the guidelines were plucked out of thin air. What relationship does this have with reality?"

Previously, teachers had found marking all the homework to be "a killer". Now they are able to provide more guidance and feedback on the work they set.

Two-thirds of parents support the reduction, the other third "need a bit more convincing and persuasion".

"They think if a child is busy upstairs, then they are learning," says Mr Heslop.

But he does not favour abolishing homework altogether. "There is a time and place for sitting down and concentrating," he says.

GUIDE TO HOMEWORK

In 1998, David Blunkett, then education secretary, issued guidelines recommending that pupils should be set homework as follows:

PRIMARY

Years 12 - 1 hour a week

Years 34 - 1.5 hours a week

Years 56 - 30 minutes a day

SECONDARY

Years 78 - 45-90 minutes a day

Year 9 - 1-2 hours a day

Years 1011 - 1.5-2.5 hours a day.

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