Last year, the primary schools I lead took what was generally thought of as a bold decision: to get rid of homework. For me, however, the move wasn’t bold – it was simple. It was the beginning of a solution to a problem that affects all schools.
My greatest frustration as a teacher – and the single biggest barrier to success for our pupils – is children who don’t believe in themselves and who have no idea how great they are and how amazing they can become.
Alongside this, we identified homework as an area that did not reap sufficient returns. When we stopped to ask what our children were getting out of it, the impact was too small. Despite our best efforts to provide creative and interesting homework with academic value, families were battling with it. We wanted more.
We took this as an opportunity to create something new, something to bring our schools and families together, to ensure we could give every student the same chance of achieving their own greatness. Our decision was that children would gain far more from spending quality time with their families than from being swamped with homework.
The response from my staff was entirely positive – although I suspect some of that stemmed from the realisation that they would have less marking to do. They immediately jumped on board with the idea that building confidence and security in children by giving them more quality time with the most important people in their lives would outweigh the benefits of reinforcing core subject learning.
The right to #Choose
Our alternative to homework is #Choose. We do not ask parents to drill their children with spelling lists, times tables, maths strategies, writing tasks or seemingly unending projects. We just ask that they use the time we have given them to do something as a family that nourishes their child’s interests, something with an element of intrigue, challenge or meaning.
We have an ever-expanding “#Choose List”, which gives families ideas for what to do. Parents and children are actively encouraged to be as expansive and creative as possible in trying new activities. We ask that they do it at least once a week and upload photos, videos and comments to their class teacher via the online learning journal Tapestry or digital portfolio Seesaw.
In addition, we encourage families to share their experiences on our school’s Facebook page so the whole school community can learn from each other. #Choose is an ethos, a culture, a way of life. Valuing time with your children is becoming deeply rooted in our families and the vast majority engage with it far more than once a week.
The aims of #Choose are clear: to increase the confidence and self-esteem of all our children and for them to better engage with all activities. These are long-term aims and we are only a term and a half in but we are already seeing the desired impact.
We have many examples of children who are beginning to sparkle, who are more confident and more willing to take risks, answer questions, have a go, fail and try again. We are seeing greater resilience and an increasing belief that it’s worth turning up at school and having a good crack at it while you are there.
Parents have been overwhelmingly supportive. Clearly, the joy of bypassing the daily homework battle helps, but this is surpassed by the appreciation that family time matters more than practising division strategies and expanded noun phrases.
Just two concerns were voiced when we surveyed parents and children about the new system, both of them about how it prepares children for the rigours of high school homework. This is important, as is the fact that I do recognise there is some merit to homework.
However, the change in attitude that #Choose is delivering will overcome this. Our children are becoming people who want to learn. We still ask that pupils read every day, because this is such a vital part of learning, but we have developed a culture in school where reading for pleasure is a reality for most – and in many cases, crosses into their #Choose, anyway.
Covering all bases
We have absorbed spelling and times-table practice into the school day. We are starting to see more attentive, focused and driven children, so there is more time to play with. We monitor in-year progress data very closely and have seen no dip in performance, and as we further embed #Choose, I fully expect to notice an increase in pupil performance to match the clearly visible increase in confidence and happiness we are already seeing.
This is not something we have done in isolation. It is part of something bigger than just removing homework, something I strongly believe will benefit our children’s life chances, their happiness and how successful they can be. We have created an “Everyone Leaves Ready” strategy with six key actions. #Choose is just one of them. We want to be more than good, more than outstanding, more than an Ofsted report, more than a school. We want every one of our children to leave us at the end of Year 6 with the life skills, confidence and resilience to take on the world.
All schools should consider what they want their homework to achieve and seriously ask whether it succeeds. We used to employ a fairly standard template of spellings, times tables and a mixture of core subject reinforcement and cross-curricular projects. When we took the time to really consider the impact, for us the answer was good enough, but no more than that.
We developed #Choose by identifying our desired impact and finding a system to achieve it. That is what school leaders should be doing. Simple as that.
Chris Aitken is executive headteacher of the Cantley and Horning Primary Schools Federation in Norfolk. He tweets @MrAHeadteacher