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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Should primary schools ditch homework?

In November last year, The Teaching Schools Council (TSC) released its Effective Primary Teaching Practice Report 2016, led by ex-primary headteacher Dame Reena Keeble with the support of a group of teachers, school leaders and academics.

This dynamic, insightful and thought-provoking report is full of practical pointers and makes several recommendations on how to improve primary teaching; it is well worth poring over if you are a primary practitioner as there is plenty to discuss.

The Dog Ate It 

One chapter of the report caught my eye in particular and that focused on ‘Effective schools make clear choices about how they organise, structure and prioritise’ and within this chapter ‘whether to use homework’ is discussed.

Homework is one of those gnarled topics that can cause more arguments than a game of Monopoly and can tear at the fabric of family life if poorly implemented or given without guidance and support.  It has always been a can of worms and evokes some strong responses.

Professor John Hattie has a clear opinion on the subject of homework. He once said on BBC Radio 4,

 

“Homework in primary school has an effect of zero”.

Hattie doesn’t think we should get rid of it but we do need to get it right and start asking whether it is really making any difference.

“If you try and get rid of homework in primary schools many parents judge the quality of the school by the presence of homework. So, don’t get rid of it. Treat the zero as saying, “It’s probably not making much of a difference but let’s improve it”. Certainly I think we get over obsessed with homework. Five to ten minutes has the same effect of one hour to two hours. The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects. The best thing you can do is to reinforce something you’ve already learnt.”

Home And Dry

What does Effective Primary Teaching Practice say?

Evidence suggests homework has a very limited impact on achievement for primary-age children – and some suggests a negative impact. Meanwhile, research on possible non-academic advantages (e.g. developing responsibility, good study habits and time-management skills) is lacking. Our view then is that homework should only be set when there is clear justification for it and there are evident benefits for pupils, including school data to back this up.

The report poses a number of questions aimed at school leaders, middle leaders and teachers which every school should be asking and discussing. For example, these include:

  • How does your school policy identify the purpose of homework and how do you measure its impact?
  • How do you guard against the risk that your homework policy may disproportionately add to teacher workload and/or pupil workload?
  • As a leader in school, how do you ensure you are clear about how the homework policy impacts on your subject of responsibility and its effect on pupil outcomes?
  • How do you encourage pupils to understand the school’s homework policy and the purpose behind each piece of homework?

The report found schools typically use homework in three ways:

  1. To practise and recap
  2. For extension
  3. New learning or pre-work

Where effective schools do set homework, they guarantee that is it is in line with their global aims and vision for teaching, learning and assessment. In particular, both the level of challenge and the feedback are considered to ensure that homework promotes a greater love of school and interest in learning.

Schools employing homework successfully are clear about:

  • Its purpose: communicating with parents and sharing with them why their children do or do not have homework. The school makes sure that children clearly understand its purpose and no pupils lose out.
  • Impact on teacher workload: following up, but in a way that does not disproportionately add to teacher workload.
  • Limiting the time that children spend doing it: suggesting a cut-off point even if children haven’t completed everything. The US rule of thumb of ‘10 minutes per grade’ is a sensible guide.
  • Level of challenge: making sure children can succeed without too many demands and without needing to ask their parents for lots of help.
  • The social context: ensuring that any homework set reflects different pupil experiences, background, and types of parental involvement.

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Homework is a high profile issue at primary. Some schools have abandoned homework recognising that it is an additional pressure for young children that can lead to frustration and exhaustion and eat into family time and other activities. As Rob Plevin says in his book Take Control of the Noisy Class,

“If you have children you’re no doubt fully aware how much of a problem the whole issue of homework can cause at home. Parents do the cajoling, reminding, threatening, punishing and bribing, while kids do the lying, avoiding, the promising, making excuses and delaying. In many homes World War III breaks out over this single issue almost every night, while in others it isn’t even mentioned.”

With no evidence to show homework has clear academic benefits at primary then why do we pursue homework? If it is given to add to the status of the school then it doesn’t serve the children.

Many parents and teachers say that work should be done at school and adding another layer of work on top of a busy day is counterproductive and damaging to children’s wellbeing. Young children need to unplug as much as their teachers do.

Any activity that seeks to make effective links between home and school in supporting children’s learning and development is good but not when it leads to child stress and arguments!

The homework debate divides opinion and always makes for a great debate to hold in class – children will have plenty to say on this subject! If you teach primary then you might want to head over to CBBC Newsround for further analysis including a video from Dame Reena Keeble. You can feed into this debate the latest thoughts of Michael Rosen who has said recently in an article for The Guardian,

“…by loading the education system with all this extra knowledge, what you’ve done is hand even more of an advantage to children who have parents with a lot of education on their CVs and/or a knowledge of how to teach. Now, I remember at various times people from the Department for Education talking about the attainment gap. Some of you have even said it’s your job to close it. Every time I sit down with my children to do the bit of the curriculum that school hours can’t cover, I am widening it.”

He’s not wide of the mark.


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