What's Your School of Thought?

18th October 2019

Getting into the habit of homework from a young age can help equip children with the skills they need to build good time-management and to proactively manage a busy workload – but, on the other hand, there is growing consensus that children’s lives are far too over-structured, and that their academic day is already too long. Lisa Botwright asks…

If homework battles with your child every might are wearing you down, you’re not alone. Earlier this year, Kirstie Allsopp sparked debate on Twitter after dismissing homework as ‘a waste of time’. Commenting on National Literacy Trust research that showed a worrying decline in reading for pleasure among young people (down from 58.8% to just 52.5% of 8-18-year-olds), the property programme presenter blamed ‘the joint assault of absurd homework, which takes time from reading, and the smartphone and tablet’. Former England football player Gary Lineker, dad to four boys, has also made his feelings known on social media, arguing that after-school studies bring ‘stress to the home, stress to the child, stress to the parents and stress to the parent-child relationship’. In his opinion, ‘reading every night should suffice’.

The great homework debate is causing increasing division amongst parents and education professionals, and is rarely out of the news. While most headteachers claim it’s an essential part of a child’s learning journey, some schools are taking the bold move of banning it completely.

The consensus among those in favour is that it’s an important means of consolidating learning in the classroom; it teaches self-discipline, initiative and responsibility. And it equips younger children with the study skills required to hit the ground running when they reach secondary school.

Teachers also believe it allows parents the opportunity to engage with their children’s learning. Dr. Harris Cooper, an American psychologist who has studied homework for more than 25 years, agrees that one if its strengths is that ‘homework can give parents an opportunity to see what’s going on at school and learn about their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses’.

What kind of independent work is best? Homework dished out for ‘homework’s sake’ is increasingly seen as bad practice. Where schools do set homework, it needs to be “meaningful and not just occupying time,” Zara Hubble, Head of Northwood College, an independent school for girls asserts. A 2010 academic study identified that the five fundamental characteristics of good homework are ‘purpose, efficiency, ownership, competence and aesthetic appeal’. In other words, it should be relevant, it shouldn’t take too long, pupils should feel connected to the task in hand, it shouldn’t be too hard or too easy and it should be interesting. After all, there’s so much more to learning than sitting at a desk hitting the text books. For the process of education to be a success, children also need “books, exploration – museum visits, nature walks etc – and conversation,” as Mrs Hubble believes.

But even with these forward-thinking parameters in place, a number of parents, including celebrity ones as we’ve seen, believe that the centuries-old custom should be banned completely. What’s making them feel so strongly?

For a start, research has shown that homework doesn’t necessarily correlate with future academic success, and that others factors are far more important, such as eating dinner together as a family, reading for pleasure, playing outside and getting enough sleep. Days are much longer now for many children; while school timings have stayed broadly the same for decades, the shape and feel of family life is very different today. With both parents working long hours, the routine of children coming in from school to homework, milk and biscuits, then going out to play with friends is long gone. Now it’s an elongated round of after-school clubs, childminders and enrichment activities. By the time parents and children arrive home, it’s late, and homework can become a source of tension between weary family members. As British blogger and mum-of-three Toni Hargis expresses it: ‘Most parents want what’s best for their children; we want to help them do well, but we vacillate between tolerance and outright hatred of homework, depending on what else we have to juggle’.

The education landscape has changed too, with teachers overwhelmed by an ‘accountability culture’ and children under more pressure than ever to get the best possible exam results in order to succeed in our current economic climate. Childline founder Esther Rantzen has spoken publicly about ‘the huge rise in anxiety affecting our young people’ and highlights the increase in calls about school pressures such as homework and exams; indeed, a study of 2,000 UK parents and teachers of primary school children, commissioned by a wellbeing charity, identified that 66 percent of mums and dads claim their child regularly feels anxious about lessons and homework.

Homework critics believe that young people need space to unwind, outside the demands of academia, and that they should be encouraged to participate in life-enhancing hobbies.

Often it’s the most outwardly-motivated children that benefit the least from homework. Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon believes that the rise in anxiety is linked with ‘perfectionism fuelled by social media’. Children are driving themselves forward not because of a positive character trait, but because of an ‘inner-critic’ that allows them little rest. ‘Today, ever more stringent testing regimes now extending into the primary and early years sectors, the existence of social media platforms in which every minor mistake is documented forever and the way the job market has changed mean it is little wonder we have seen a steep rise in perfectionism,’ she asserts.

As if to prove just how contentious the homework debate is, look no further than the example of the Philip Morant School and College, a secondary maintained school with academy status in Colchester. In 2016, Principal Catherine Hutley, fuelled by concerns about the wellbeing of her pupils and protective of her teachers’ workload, announced that she was going to abolish homework. She was ‘genuinely excited’ and was ‘convinced students would benefit’.
The result? ‘Open revolt’ amongst parents, concerned that their children would fail to meet their targets and would ‘flunk their exams’. By 2018 a new principal had been recruited and the school reported to the media that it was ‘in the process of establishing a robust and thorough approach to independent study at home’ – ominously based on ‘a very significant compulsory element’.

But while Catherine Hutley’s educational ethos was seemingly at odds with her parent body, a primary school in Croxley Green appears to be much more in tune with theirs. Little Green Junior School has just carried out a comprehensive review of their homework policy by seeking the views of every child and adult within their school community. Duncan Roberts, who’s been Head since last September, is proud of his inclusive and holistic approach. “If you want to do something well, you have to recognise it connects to everything as well. Homework links to our reflection of the curriculum, on pupil behaviour, on parental engagement, expectations and what our teachers think.” Pragmatically, he says, “If we come up with the same conclusions, then that’s fine; if we come up with new conclusions, then that’s when things have to change.” Although the findings have yet to be fully reviewed, Mr Roberts is pleased that there appears to be general agreement about the amount of homework that should be given for each year group. While he concedes that he too is worried about a “greater prevalence of mental health issues”, (and has co-launched a mental health drive, aimed at destigmatising mental health, along with other schools in the area), he asserts that “there has to be a balance – our job is to prepare children for the real world, which can be tough”. Overall, he believes that “learning must empower children, and the goal is to have children who will drive their own learning… so let’s plan purposefully”.

Another local school is turning conventional notions of homework on its head – literally. Shirley Drummond, Head of St Helen’s College, an independent school in Hillingdon for boys and girls aged two to eleven, has introduced ‘flipped learning’ for older children in some subjects. Rather than consolidating what they have learned during the lesson and doing their homework after they have studied a particular topic or concept, children are expected to prepare beforehand instead. “Evidence shows that there can be a lot of wasted time in the classroom,” she tells me. “Flipped learning inverts the traditional classroom model by introducing core concepts before class allowing teachers to use class time more effectively to guide each student through active, practical, innovative applications of the principles being taught’”

According to the Higher Education Academy (HEA) – a British professional institution that promotes evidence-based teaching methods – the practice move students away from passive learning and towards active learning where students engage in collaborative activity, peer learning and problem-based learning: ‘The benefits are that by providing students with the material to gain a basic level of knowledge and understanding before class, classroom time can be used to deepen learning and develop higher-level cognitive skills’.

Mrs Drummond is delighted with the results so far. “Our children are very proficient; they’ve been making their own videos by working work individually and collaboratively through IT platforms. Flipped learning is inspiring our children, making things interesting and relevant for them so that they take ownership of their subjects.”

She believes that homework “should be relevant and interesting, preparing the children for future learning; it should not be stressful for families. If there is a conflict, the school should be made aware; teachers need to know if ‘children’ are struggling” Parents should also “stick to the school’s policy on timings,” she cautions. She agrees that children can be perfectionists and says that they “need to learn to work to times”.

The ongoing debate shows no sign of abating, but it’s clear that while homework has an important role, it should be seen in the context of the demands of a child’s overall work-life balance, and subject to continual review by the school. After all, the best kind of education practice is always evolving – what children learn both at home and at school needs to be as inspiring and as relevant as possible.

It’s also important for parents to be protective of the whole family’s stress levels. Do approach the school and ask their advice if you and your child are grappling with fitting everything in. Most education professionals will be very understanding and will appreciate the honesty if there’s a good reason why homework can’t be completed on time. Just don’t say that the dog ate it…

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