Improving your homework provision

Written by: Jennifer Jays | Published:
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do you have any advice or guidance on how to promote good strategies of homework in a secondary ...

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Homework is only worthwhile if it has an impact. Jennifer Jays, discusses her work to turnaround her school’s homework strategy

Like camping, Justin Bieber or Marmite, homework divides opinion.

Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the UCL Institute of Education, argues that: “Getting pupils to do homework is an expensive and generally unproductive public relations exercise. Schools push homework because they think parents like it, but most schools don’t plan homework well enough for it to be worth doing. This is not to say that homework cannot be good, just that most of it currently isn’t.”

This often rings true with teachers, especially those working in the poorest areas of the country where young people often don’t have the appropriate space or resources to complete homework, let alone complete it to a standard where it might begin to have an impact on their learning.

At my school, Sidney Stringer Academy, we decided not to give up on our homework system. According to the Educational Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, effective homework can increase student progress by five months. For many, this could mean the difference between a C or a D, the difference between being able to access the future pathway they were working towards or not.

Setting the scene

Sidney Stringer is a successful 11 to 18 provider working in challenging circumstances. We have 1,342 students on roll, who often come from difficult backgrounds: 59 per cent free school meals, 94 per cent from ethnic minority backgrounds, 84 per cent speak English as an additional language, and 52 per cent have SEN.

Working in a challenging inner-city secondary academy where our young people join us significantly below the national average for achievement and face considerable deprivation at home, homework posed a real challenge. How much to set? When to set it? How to set it? Should we have a fixed homework timetable or allow teachers to set targeted intervention homework pieces?

Setting priorities

Our baseline data left a lot to be desired – it was either very promising or very misleading. Teachers recorded only 1,011 instances of missed homework over 2013/14. In a school of more than 1,300 students, this seemed unlikely. While 92 per cent of students in the whole-school student survey said they always recorded homework in their student passports (diaries), a trawl of a random sample did not support this. Further, 28 per cent of the students who responded to the survey said they did not always complete the homework set.

The issues with the data were exacerbated by the low profile of homework with key stakeholders in the school; teachers were not following our homework schedule rigorously, students were not prioritising homework and parents were inconsistently signing passports to indicate that they had checked homework had been completed.

The poor use of passports by students also made it difficult to assess the quality of homework being set. In light of this, three clear priorities emerged:

  1. To improve the monitoring of homework.
  2. To improve the support in place for students from the toughest backgrounds.
  3. To improve the quality and the impact of the homework set.

Improving monitoring

Having met with the assistant principal for behaviour and the vice-principal, I designed a new whole-school homework monitoring system. The system required that staff record every missed homework deadline on the school’s management information system (MIS).

This data was then used to enforce a series of new, whole-school consequences. If a student missed three homework deadlines they would attend an hour-long detention after school where they completed a restorative justice activity, and were then given the time and resources to complete any outstanding homework.

If they failed to attend this detention, they were placed in the school’s Internal Exclusion Room for a day. This process was repeated if they missed another three deadlines, with the addition of a meeting for them and their parents with their tutor. After another three missed deadlines and they and their parents would meet with their head of house, and so on.

We made sure that staff knew that the system was designed to support them when following up on homework by continuously repeating this message in assemblies, briefings and meetings.

The system improved the accuracy of recording in the first instance and later the completion of homework. When comparing autumn term 1 before and after the system was introduced, the number of homework concerns recorded increased from 877 to 3,473. Of the 1,342 students on roll, 902 have been recorded on the MIS as having missed at least one homework deadline.

Of the students who have been through the system, 223 have not re-offended since their last detention. This number has steadily increased throughout the year. The number of students missing homework deadlines has declined from 992 in autumn 1 to 163 in summer 1.

Improving student support

I relaunched the underused whole-school homework club, hoping to improve uptake and quality of provision, as well as to increase the number of Pupil Premium students attending the club, as they were arguably the ones who needed it the most. This involved:

  • Relocating it from the school restaurant to a classroom so that students had access to IT and the environment was more suitable for learning.
  • Doubling the number of nights the club was available from one to two per week.
  • Ensuring that it was staffed by teachers as well as learning support assistants to give students the help they needed.
  • Providing drinks and biscuits as an incentive for students (and staff volunteers!).
  • Introducing rewards for students who could demonstrate that they had been working effectively on their homework for 30 minutes.
  • Increasing the profile of the club, advertising it regularly in assemblies and ensuring it was always up on the school’s notice screens and in each tutor’s weekly PowerPoint briefing.

The club relied on volunteers to run it. I presented the club as a whole-school effort to support our students from the toughest backgrounds, and appealed to staff to give up just one hour each half-term. This meant that a large number of staff were prepared to get involved.

The homework club has become a valued part of the school’s enrichment provision. Of the 30 staff and 250 students surveyed who had either run or visited the club, 100 per cent agreed that the club provided a quiet, focused and well-resourced place for students to study.

Attendance has doubled to around 20 students a night. The balance of take-up has also changed, with our Pupil Premium cohort becoming much better-represented.

Improving homework quality/impact

My efforts in this area are very much on-going. I began by leading teaching and learning sessions where the staff worked with me to agree best practice. Each faculty committed to take one element of this agreed best practice to work on over the term, and our most recent work scrutiny has revealed an improvement in the quality of homework set and completed.

I also supported the redesign of the schemes of learning in light of the new curriculum to ensure that homework, in line with our new agreed best practice, was built into short, medium and long-term planning. I have high hopes for the impact of this work going forward.

The initiative has helped many of our students to grow as learners. One young man in year 7 represents the journey we have been on as a school. He had been notorious for missing homework deadlines. At the beginning of the year he was sent to detention repeatedly. Through the structure of the detention system he eventually realised that by attending homework club he was able not only to avoid detention, but also to pick up rewards for making progress.

Our students and staff now see homework as an essential part of learning: our students are significantly better at completing it, and our staff are better at setting purposeful homework. They even feel confident to set none at all when it won’t support learning.

  • Jennifer Jays is assistant principal of Sidney Stringer Academy in Coventry.

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do you have any advice or guidance on how to promote good strategies of homework in a secondary school? ie how to help teachers develop it
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A really interesting article, thank you. I am about to start a similar project at a school in South Birmingham and I was wondering might it be possible to contact you by email to discuss this in more detail.
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