Finding the balance with homework

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Photo: iStock

Too much? Too little? And is it really worth it in the end? The debate surrounding homework continues amid concerns that it exacerbates disadvantage. Suzanne O’Connell asks schools about their policies

Last year, the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that on average 15-year-old students spend almost five hours a week doing homework. However, there are significant differences between countries. At the bottom of the scale, students in Finland reported studying for less than three hours while students in the Russian Federation were studying around 10.

Research into the benefits of homework is not conclusive. The Education Endowment Foundation's Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that homework has a moderate impact in secondary schools. Setting homework that is short and focused is more effective than homework that is routinely set.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit is less positive about homework in primary schools. At a younger age it suggests that the setting of homework only has low impact. However, its does note that schools where pupils do homework tend to perform better than schools where pupils don't. Which leads to which is not clear.

Schools' policies

Alex Smythe is headteacher at Newcroft Primary School in Loughborough. His school received an outstanding Ofsted judgement in September 2014. "I do believe that homework is important," he told Headteacher Update, "because it can be a strong factor in helping children to develop a life-long appreciation of learning. It helps children to see that hard work is important."

At Springhead Primary School in Yorkshire, headteacher Carolyn Jones is also a clear advocate of homework: "We feel that homework is important because it helps children to develop the discipline of studying without an adult standing over them. Getting children into good habits of managing their workload and independently working at a high standard is part of making sure that they are secondary-ready."

Sending spelling lists home is often part of schools' homework schedule. However, headteacher Jacqui Booth of St James' CE First School in Dorset, is not convinced. She explained: "The only thing we feel particularly strongly about is that sending home spellings for weekly tests has little value. We now send home skills-based learning activities so that they can apply their learning across the curriculum.''

Whatever a school's policy on homework, chances are that not all parents will agree with it. At Newcroft Primary, they use parents' surveys conducted annually in November, to gauge the parent view.

"In 2013, parents were telling us that they weren't happy with our homework arrangements," explained Mr Smythe. "As a result, and in consultation with them, we redefined homework tasks in two categories – compulsory and optional. This has had a huge impact and 99.1 per cent now agree with the school's homework arrangements."

Challenging socio-economic differences

The OECD noted that there was a link between socio-economic differences and homework. "Some of this is simply due to the fact that homework encourages conversation and language richness between children and their parents," suggested Mr Smythe. "Children are helped to become more proficient in talking about their learning."

Many schools make additional provision available in the form of homework clubs, individual and small group support in order to help bridge the gap. Ms Jones at Springhead refers to the variety of ways in which parents approach the setting and completion of homework: "Some parents expect it to be done conscientiously. Some would like to help but aren't confident in doing so, others aren't interested and some object to it being done."

School represents an opportunity to narrow the expectation gap, Ms Jones said. "We think that one of the reasons our disadvantaged children do so well is that we have very high expectations, irrespective of background.

"These expectations don't just apply to the work ethic in school but also to homework. If homework is rushed or not done to a high enough standard, key stage 2 children have to do it again in a supervised lunchtime club."

Where there are problems

Non-completion of homework is rigorously followed up at Springhead. Ms Jones describes their approach: "We have a set letter to send home asking if there is a problem. We also get parents in and ask them about what the difficulties are. Sometimes we show parents how well other children have completed their homework, which can surprise them and make them realise that their children's efforts aren't good enough."

For those parents who want to help but don't know how, the school provides opportunities for parents to come in. "Sometimes we model, for example hearing someone read, and let parents just sit and watch how we do it. Then we get them to take over and make suggestions or reassure them that they are helping."

When children aren't behaving for their parents, Ms Jones has a tried and tested method she has been using for 10 years: "We have an A4 sheet with boxes for each night," she explained. "Parents have to score their children out of 10 for their attitude towards their homework. We have a meeting with the parent and child at school to discuss which behaviours result in losing points.

"Every day the child has to have the sheet signed by the teacher. If the score is below six they have to come and show me and there are sanctions. It never fails. Within a few weeks we don't need to continue with it."

Other strategies

At Newcroft, the separation of homework tasks into compulsory and optional has been particularly successful: "Children have 'non-negotiables' each week such as reading and spelling," explained Mr Smythe. "Alongside this there is a more creative, optional task that they can complete over a two or three-week period."

The creative tasks tend to be far more open-ended: "The children were asked to create something that showed what they already knew about chocolate," Mr Smythe continued. "Children can produce models, posters, artwork or anything that suits their learning style. It's great!"

Newcroft Primary School's Homework Guidance for Parents provides a list of example of the types of activities that might be set and a list of expectations for both parents and school. It includes reference to the homework certificates that the school issues and the expectation that teachers will acknowledge completed homework. Being clear from the outset is a vital component in their partnership approach.

Keeping the balance

However rigorous the school's approach might be, account sometimes needs to be taken of the different circumstances that families can find themselves in.

"We know our families well," said Ms Jones, "and we try to be flexible in how homework gets done." This includes ensuring that there is a wide-enough window for children to complete tasks while also allowing for clubs and activities outside of school.

Mr Smythe recognises that homework can place pressures on family life: "Too much homework and we risk the weekly eruptions at home between parents who are desperate to show the school they are supportive and children who don't want to be writing an epic on a Sunday evening.
"I always tell parents that the harmony in the home is far more important than the necessity to complete a piece of homework."

Differences in the level of support exist in families, but so do the pressures on them. Primary schools are committed to closing the gap but not at the expense of family life. 

  • Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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