Homework: To set, or not to set...

I love doing my homework and marking for the English lessons

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The pros and cons of homework have long been argued in the staffroom. Now that the government has scrapped the official homework guidelines, Dorothy Lepkowska considers both sides of the homework debate.

The issue of homework remains a tricky one for schools. Set it and there is a chance it will not get done. Don’t bother and parents will demand to know why.

Then there are the questions of how much to set, when to set it, and what the expectations should be of pupils. Increasingly, it seems, there is debate in both secondary and primary schools about whether homework should be given at all.

With government guidelines on how much homework pupils should expect now scrapped, it has become a matter for individual schools to decide. This is not necessarily an easy decision to make. Research into the effectiveness and validity of homework is divided, and tends to follow the trends of received wisdom at any particular time. 

Under guidelines laid down by the previous government, secondary schools were encouraged to set as much as two-and-a-half hours a night for children aged 14 to 16. However, critics have always maintained that too much homework, set in the wrong way, could result in children switching off from learning altogether, while for teachers it creates obvious workload issues.

One of the most recent studies on the subject, carried out for the Department for Education, of more than 3,000 pupils over a 15-year period, found that time spent on homework reflected how much pupils were expected to do, as well as their enjoyment of the subjects.

Pat Sammons, professor of education at the University of Oxford, who was one of the academics involved in the study, found that one of the reasons pupils from some ethnic backgrounds, such as Chinese and Indian, performed well at school was because they put more into their homework. So success was found in effort as well as ability.

The report, which was jointly conducted by Oxford, and the University of London’s Institute of Education and Birkbeck College, controlled for social class and whether pupils had a quiet place to work, but still found that there were some benefits. Researchers discovered that children who did well from disadvantaged backgrounds were supported by parents who valued learning and encouraged extra-curricular activities.

However, the research is at odds with some earlier studies. Research from the Institute of Education carried out several years ago by Professor Susan Hallam, found that homework often caused friction at home.

Her analysis, which examined 75 years worth of studies into homework, concluded that schools needed to focus more on the purpose and quality of homework, and not the amount. She also made a case that it should be completed in homework clubs, rather than at home where conditions were not always conducive to learning.

The report said: “Homework can cause anxiety, boredom fatigue and emotional exhaustion in children, who resent the encroachment on their free time, even though they think homework helps them to do well at school.”

Researchers in the United States, meanwhile, where a similar debate ensues about homework, have found that parental involvement was, in the main, beneficial for students. However, too much help from mothers and fathers could lead to any benefits of home study being lost, as it was not the children doing the work.

At Tapton School in Sheffield, the homework policy is expected to be redrawn in the coming months following research carried out by Jenny Bows, a teacher in the art and design department.

She found parents overwhelmingly believed homework was useful and should be part of a school’s provision. Meanwhile, students preferred creative homework that comprised a mixture of tasks. 

“I have come to the conclusion that we need to rethink our objectives,” she said. “We need quality rather than quantity, time to do work well, and connection and relevance to the work in class. These seem to be the main issues. Differentiation and access also emerged as key themes.

“Staff issues are concerned mostly around the purposeful nature of homework and the pressure to tick boxes, and of course, marking and feedback.”

She said staff had already had some interesting discussions about how they could develop notions of enjoyment of learning among pupils.

“At our meetings everyone brought along example of what styles of homework didn’t work and what did, and why this was the case. What we now need to do is to come up with a consistent policy and this term we will be presenting our findings to see if we can get a whole-school discussion going on where we go from here.

“One dilemma we will always have is what homework is for. Is it to help us to deliver the syllabus or to teach young people about independent learning? We need to think about homework being interesting and useful, and to wean young people off being spoon-fed and encourage independent learning ready for the next stage in their lives.”

Sarah Rayment, deputy head of science in a West Midlands secondary school, believes the homework policy in her school is failing the most able and motivated students. 

Every pupil receives two pieces a week of homework in the core subjects of English, maths and science and every other subject sets one piece of work a term, which might involve some sort of research and equates to about half-an-hour of work a week.

“This approach works reasonably well for a majority of pupils, but a significant minority fall through the cracks, partly because the deadline for completion is just too long,” she said. “Those pupils who are going to do the homework will do it, but those that don’t won’t regardless. Even then we see that many students who have completed it have put in the bare amount of effort and have only really skimmed the surface of what they were supposed to do.

“Organisationally many pupils find this system quite hard and they tend to leave it to the last minute, and it shows.” Furthermore, she said, because these projects are set over the long-term, students don’t really see the connection with what they are learning in lessons.

She added that, for teachers, setting homework had become a “tick-box exercise”. “We have to show in our planning that we have set work to be done at home, but no-one is checking to see if it has actually been done and to what standard, and this is the problem. It is largely done to satisfy parents, who expect us to set it. 

“What we really need is a system where the most able are stretched through homework to become inquisitive and to deepen their knowledge. But instead we are setting work to the lowest possible denominator in the hope that some of the least able and unmotivated do the work, without really considering how we are short-changing those at the end of the spectrum.

“I was asked by a learning assistant last year to set some sort of drawing as homework for one of our least able boys, who was working at P-levels, just to show we were setting something. It was utterly pointless.”

Meanwhile, Terry Molloy, head of Claremont High School Academy in north London, agreed that purpose and quality is of paramount importance.

“I have endless discussions with my staff, who do not all share my visions for homework – and that is that you shouldn’t set any,” he said. 

Mr Molloy favours a cross-curricular approach, where students research a topic in their own time so they can establish connections and transferability between different subjects. This requires teachers to be creative about how they set homework.

He added: “Studies in the United States that deconstructed the purpose of homework found that teachers set it to give students something to do, and were happy when it was completed regardless of whether it was of any value,” he said. “It was the compliance that was considered to be important, and not the impact on pupil progress.”

A review of academic research into homework, carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 2001, found there was a “relatively modest” impact on older pupils. It quoted one study that found A level students who spent seven hours or more on homework per week achieved results that were only a third of a grade higher than students of the same sex and ability who did homework for less than two hours a week.

Results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Pisa study, on the other hand, which compares school systems around the world, found a strong correlation between children’s reading performance at 15 and home activities such as discussing politics, talking about books or films, and eating meals together as a family.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said homework was “part and parcel of a good education – along with high quality teaching and strong discipline”.

“We trust headteachers to set the homework policy for their school,” he added. “They know their pupils best and should be free to make these decisions without having to adhere to unnecessary bureaucratic guidance.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

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I love doing my homework and marking for the English lessons
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