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HomeNewsChris McGovern: Banning homework will Finnish off our below-par schools

Chris McGovern: Banning homework will Finnish off our below-par schools


Recently, a secondary school academy of 1650 pupils in Colchester decided to stop setting homework for its pupils. Now, a concerned parent has made a formal complaint to Ofsted. The inspectorate’s decision may have far-reaching implications. Plenty of other schools are ready, willing and prepared to join the ‘ban homework’ bandwagon.

The head teacher of the Colchester school, Ms Huntley, has explained her reasoning in these terms: “The job of a teacher is impossible. There are not enough hours in the day to teach, set homework, mark homework and plan their lessons. We want it to be the number one priority so teachers can plan for students’ individual needs and keep on top of their progress on a daily basis.”

In addition to the homework ban, the school has removed academic banding. It seems that ‘homework-free’ mixed ability teaching is the way forward. Has Ms Huntley chosen the right path for her pupils? She obviously thinks so and declared herself “genuinely excited” about her innovations.

Time, of course, will tell if her experiment is a success or not. It coincides with the introduction of a revised national curriculum and public examination system that are supposed to be more demanding than their predecessors.

It is not difficult to understand why most teachers at the school are likely to be very pleased, indeed, by the prohibition order on homework. Their workload will be considerably reduced. Yippee! Only the most dedicated teachers these days see education as a ‘service’ that is supposed to work in the best interests of pupils.

The purpose of homework is to support classroom learning. It requires as much thoughtful planning as a classroom lesson. The two are complementary and good teachers recognise this fact. If homework is an ill thought-out ‘add-on’ it is, indeed, a waste of time.

“We have carefully analysed the performance and progress of our students and the impact homework has had on this,” the head teacher claimed. “We know homework is not working for the majority of our students.” One may conclude from the Colchester school’s decision, therefore, that the homework its pupils were being set fell into the ‘waste of time’ category.

Ms Huntley told the Times: “Homework was too often made up of finishing curriculum work which had not been completed in class.” This is an admission of a failure that, clearly, was not spotted by it last Ofsted inspection. The school was rated as “good”.

Savvy teachers in other schools may learn from all of this that if they, too, wish to ditch the burden of setting and marking homework the best way to achieve their aim is to set homework that is a waste of time.

The headmistress has given a further justification for the school’s homework ban. The new move will, apparently, stop children who did not complete homework from falling behind. The idea seems to be that by reducing the amount of work pupils do the more you reduce the inequality gap in terms of attainment. Clever!

The educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, is likely to back the school. Anything that makes life easier for teachers is a sure-fire winner with the profession. During a recent radio interview I gave to the BBC about this issue, I was told that children in Finland do not do homework but are at the top of the tree for education attainment. Game, set and match to the homework ban? Not quite.

First, Finnish children do, in fact, do homework even if it is limited to around half an hour a night. Second, Finland’s was at the top of the OECD PISA league tables in 2003 – first in science, first in literacy, second in maths. This was a consequence of a traditional subject-based curriculum. In recent years it has moved towards integrated, less subject-based, teaching such as is common in the UK. In the most recent OECD PISA ranking (2012) it had fallen to 12th position in maths, to 6th position in literacy and 5th position in science. Homework may be limited but, even with the crème de la crème of graduates in the teaching profession, Finland has been heading south.

In contrast, Shanghai sets the most homework of any school system around the world – probably too much. Is it a coincidence, however, that it is now top of the PISA international league table of attainment, three years ahead of out youngsters by the age of 15? Ditching homework may not be such a good idea, after all.

Ofsted’s response to the Colchester parent is going to be most interesting!

(Image: Hades2k)

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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