Out of sight, always in mind
If, like me, your memories of the word "homework" come with a range of other words which include "forgot", "eaten by dog" and "see me later", then you may frown at the idea of primary pupils being given work to do at home. Childhood, after all, soon passes by. Nevertheless, as OFSTED found in a survey last year, homework in the primary sector is very much alive and well. Most schools of all kinds, it seems, mention homework - if only briefly - in their prospectus, and a quarter of primaries have a written statement of homework policy.
One that takes homework very seriously is Crawley Ridge Junior in Camberley, Surrey. In the lower end of the school, the work consists mainly of reading and spelling practice, with such tasks as the making of early written work drafts. No more than 30 minutes is expected, and the policy says that "it is as flexible as possible to allow for activities such as Brownies and Cubs".
When the pupils arrive in Year 6, however, they are faced with a fully-fledged homework timetable, supported by a policy document that sets out the driving philosophy ("Ito create a disciplined approach to homework as a preparation for the coming years") and gives advice to parents ("no longer than an hour should be spent on the work unless it is obvious to a parent that there is a high degree of motivation and commitmentI").
For headteacher Betty Kerr, homework both prepares the pupils for secondary school and introduces them to disciplined working - making "time where they can practise skills and become independent learners".
The Year 6 homework timetable at Crawley Ridge covers respectively, over five days, literature, maths, handwriting, spelling and topic. Importantly, the tasks set are neither vague "finishing-off" activities nor obviously invented to fill up space. A literature homework, for example, may be to do a book review or to prepare a talk on an aspect of a book. Each child takes home a planning book; parents sign to show that the work has been done. Checking of signatures, and the spotting of problems, is largely done by classroom assistants. "They'll hear spellings," explains Year 6 teacher Ann Counsell, "ask how handwriting went and generally keep an eye on things." Their support, in fact, is essential in convincing pupils that homework is important and taken seriously.
The pupils I spoke to seem generally to like homework - or at least to understand its purpose. One Year 4 pupil, for example, was accustomed to reaching some daily targets at home "because I'm not quite so quick as the others - some just go zoom and they're finished, and it takes me longer than that."
But what, I asked a Year 6 girl, if you set out your homework stall at home and find that you cannot understand what you have to do? She laughed, "I've tried that, and I assure you it doesn't work! I have to get on the phone to a friend."
According to parent governor Sally Drury, parents generally share the school's perceptions of the homework policy. "I think it's a good idea to do some work at home because it encourages the partnership with parents. It also gives the children a bit of independent study - and the sooner they begin to do that the better."
It all has to be done properly, of course, and the key, as with so much of the curriculum these days, is to do with careful planning. The setting of properly differentiated maths homework, for example, difficult at the best of times, is impossible without careful thought and planning. Crawley Ridge is an impressive school, with high-achieving children and articulate parents, and Betty Kerr sees her homework policy in that context.
"It has to be part of the planned programme, not an add-on. Every single piece of work we ask our children to do we have planned for and we know the purpose of it."
As a long-serving head, she has some regrets - that curriculum coverage has led to the setting of so many "closed" tasks, for example. "The time was when you could give open-ended tasks, and perhaps we will be able to again, but the problem so far has been to get everything in."
Homework in Primary and Secondary Schools, a report from the Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools.