When it is bad, it is horrid

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Homework is a subject on which everyone has a view. Parents believe it is good for the soul, pupils think it is bad for your social life, and teachers say it is OK in theory, but in practice a pain in the neck. All are agreed on one thing at least - when it is bad it is horrid.

Four years of research into homework have tested this caricature and shown that it contains more than a germ of truth. Its ambivalent reputation is due in part to a bad press and in part to a hangover of expectation from a previous generation.

While learning in school has moved ever on to more differentiated, engaging and creative tasks, learning out of school has found itself stuck in a time warp.

Again and again we visited primary schools where all around was lively and stimulating but children were sent home at night with a page of sums, or with five words for their parents to turn into sentences.

During the school day children worked in pairs and groups. In the evening, work at home was, as one boy put it, "a lonely and tedious activity".

In many schools the old and the new pedagogies have continued to exist side-by-side in a state of unhappy tension.

The failure to tackle this is due primarily to a confusion about the purpose and place of homework. It is a voluntary activity and, therefore, undertaken by some and not others.

It is difficult to achieve without some form of support or guidance, and without at least some minimal level of personal commitment to self-directed learning. In schools where pupils feel coerced, directed, and given no incentive to carry on learning, escape from the classroom is all the more emancipating.

Homework also magnifies inequalities. Those who religiously tackle their work at home, piling up 10 hours a week credit, are at least 10 hours better off than their classmates who do nothing.

Those who try to make sense of their learning and supersede the geography of their educational context are likely to succeed, while success is forever likely to elude those for whom education resides solely in the school.

Bad homework may be horrid but good homework is undoubtedly good for you. It is not too extravagant a claim that what you do and what you learn out of school is the key determinant of success.

What you learn in school is never of itself sufficient.

So, if there is no coherent and integrated approach to learning in and out of school, both quality and equality are bound to suffer.

If no such coherence exists it is probably due to one, or all, of three things: * the staff as a whole have never reached agreement on the purposes of out-of-school learning * they have not successfully communicated the purposes of homework to pupils and parents * they have not devised and agreed a home-school framework in which the quality of learning can be monitored and supported across the boundaries.

These are the themes which we visited over and over again in our research and development work with schools. The need for models of good, better, and best practice became increasingly apparent, as did the need for some systematic guidance on a whole school approach.

That need was also increasingly apparent to HM Inspectorate, and their sponsorship of the Homework File was one immediate outcome.

The Homework File

The file consists of five short A4 books in a slip case. The books cover "Why have homework?"; "Developing a Whole School Policy"; "Carrying out a Homework Audit"; "Involving and Informing Parents", and "Helping Pupils Learn for Themselves".

The material is written and illustrated with great clarity and understanding for the realities of school life. There are photocopiable planning sheets and many reproductions of actual school documents. Most importantly, it illustrates its arguments with a wealth of real life case studies and examples.

For this reason as much as any, it has been welcomed enthusiastically in Scottish schools - as soon as it arrived on heads' desks, during the summer holidays, John MacBeath began receiving enthusiastic phone calls and repeat orders. Alan Waugh, of Penicuik High, endorses it wholeheartedly. "It's saved us six months to a year of planning by showing us what other schools are doing. Why reinvent the wheel?" The Homework File is available at Pounds 25 (Pounds 15 for orders of five or more) from Sales and Publications, Faculty of Education, Jordanhill Campus, University of Strathclyde, 76 Southbrae Drive, Jordanhill, Glasgow G13 1PP

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