Helen Rumbelow wrote a good summary last week in the Times on the case against homework in primary schools. Since the Labour government’s homework guidelines were published in 1998, many schools have taken it for granted that it is a good thing. Certainly, I remember having to produce a report on homework for my governors at Cheswardine in 2002 and then again for St Mary’s Shawbury about a year later. Both times I used and distributed the guidance to governors and wrote a summary for staff. But now I wonder.

I remember enjoying doing homework, but of course I was not at home, but at school, and I did not enjoy it until I was at least 10, possibly 11, and really enjoyed it when I was about 13. It seemed a great way to extend learning and our teachers skilfully used it as just that – the extension and deepening of learning. I thrived on it. For some reason, I developed a research bug then that has never left me, and I am grateful for the forced opportunity to do what we called “prep” (because I was privately educated, thanks to the generosity of the direct grant system for officers serving overseas). Those who insist on the benefits of homework probably remember it from about this age, when the learning bug got them (it must have or else they would not be in a position to be in government to make the claims they do). There is some evidence that our learning expectations and resilience kicks in about 12, though not every Year 7 teacher sees it that way, I would imagine.

But there is some serious evidence, summarised in the Visible Learning research of John Hattie, that homework has no real impact on the achievement of primary aged pupils. This is not new  – there is a perfectly rounded and skeptical argument against it published by Caroline Sharp of the NFER back in 2002, (building on the work of Harris Cooper), who reports: How much does homework contribute to achievement? Even among older pupils, the homework effect appears to be relatively modest.

This is the nub of the issue. Are we doing this simply to make parents feel as though they are contributing, or have we really thought it through? Susan Hallam’s book Homework: The evidence, which came out in 2004, differentiated again between the strong effect of some homework (when well targeted) for early teenaged children and later, and the relatively ineffectual impact of homework on primary aged children. Interesting.

I get the impression at Christ the Sower, that our homework policy is more thought-through than most, and we have come to the conclusion that “home learning” is a place for children and their parents to cooperate and test out some of the learning that has already gone ahead. This was not something I directly contributed to, though I have conducted two evaluations of homework and am broadly happy with the range of subjects and approaches covered. As I am the head of an institution, and am now raising questions about our own practice in this matter, I perhaps ought to say that this is not policy in school – it is me musing as devil’s advocate in the light of some serious misgivings I have as a result of Hattie’s research. Some thoughts I have – questions and observations:

  1. If reading is to encouraged as a delight, a gift and a treasure, as well as a skill, should it be lumped in with homework or home learning?
  2. If we are to be really explicit about certain things – memory training, for instance, for spelling, poetry, plays, times tables and French verb conjugations, amongst others – must we also be explicit about the skills we are fostering? Should we say to children – we want you to learn these tables, and whilst you are at it, you will be improving specific neural pathways that will help you to memorise more difficult material later?
  3. If we are expecting children to consult with their parents over home learning, why are we marking the stuff? Whose work are we marking?
  4. Is tutoring (something all schools have to cope with, despite the variable quality) the same as homework? Is it not teaching, rather?
  5. Home learning that has always had the greatest impact for me has been long term research projects, with children in Years 3-6 having 6 weeks to research,write, compile, arrange and present some work on a topic of interest to them all. This has always been an opportunity to teach effective research skills, but has been backed up most effectively with regular feedback during the projects, shaping children’s learning, and allowing interaction with others.
  6. Sugata Mitra’s work on Self-Organising Learning Environments (SOLEs) might suggest that homework is best done in groups of children, learning together, relatively unsupervised, but with a strong direction to follow. Have we created a culture where homework done together is seen as cheating? And if we have, does this indicate that we have allowed accountability to take the place of learning?
  7. If homework is that important, what is the teacher’s commitment to it? This might be the nub of some parents’ hassles that teachers do not mark their children’s (or their!) homework. The other side of this question is whether or not we provide a homework after-school club, as many schools do, for children to complete material in an environment where feedback can be provided as well.

On top of all this, is the issue of whether the material we teach in school is the sort of thing that children could usefully learn at home as well. Are there not many more important things to be doing at home, within the family and community, than homework? I imagine there are. There will be time enough for work. “But we want our children to get ahead!” Ahead of whom, pray? And in which areas? And why those?

This thing needs some in-house debate, I feel.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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