School homework is in danger of becoming a “completely pointless” task, of little educational value, as schools seek to meet new Ofsted expectations. That, at least, is the view of Tom Bennett, director of the “Research Ed” Conference and one of two UK nominees for the Global Teacher Prize. He has told The Times Educational Supplement that he is not against homework ‘per se’ but fears that “too often it’s an exercise in back covering, or box ticking, with no real thought for educational outcomes.”
Tom must have a poor opinion of his teaching colleagues if he considers that they are unable to set worthwhile homework. All that Ofsted is requiring is that “teachers set homework in line with the school’s policy and that challenges all pupils, especially the most able.”
However, the debate he has resurrected is an important one. A major teacher union (ATL) has already called for a ban on homework for primary age pupils and some schools do have a ‘no homework’ policy. In terms of marking and assessment this can make life easier for teachers but it is also claimed that it reduces pressure on children and allows them to enjoy a fuller childhood.
I am very much in favour of nurturing and enriching childhood and there is no valid reason why homework should not enhance this process, rather then being an impediment to it. Unsurprisingly, most children wish to learn and to improve. They understand and accept that relevant homework is intrinsic to learning. If teachers can fulfil their central obligation of encouraging in children a love of learning, then homework ceases to be a burden.
A crucial homework task for all young children, for example, should be to read to their parents each evening. Learning to read, as homework, is not a blight on childhood, rather it is an enrichment of it. It is not only a passport to future learning but the access key to books and to the pleasures they can bring. Pupils see all of this very clearly and most have a strong desire to reinforce their reading skills at home. Which child wishes to be the illiterate kid left behind and with his/her life chances destroyed?
If daily reading homework is fundamental to childhood happiness, homework practice of number-bonds and ‘times-tables’ is not so far behind. Pupils doing arithmetic without this basic knowledge in place become slaves of the calculator and have little concept of what might be a right or a wrong answer. Homework practice should support classwork lessons in numeracy and allows more progress to be made. Few children are prepared to sacrifice learning in order to ditch homework.
Opponents of homework claim that British children get more homework than some other European children. However they fail to point out that the schools in the most successful education systems in the world, notably Shanghai and Singapore, set considerably more homework than ours do. On average 15-year-olds in the UK spend 4.9 hours a week on homework. In Shanghai the average homework time is 13.8 hours per week and, according to the OECD, their 15-year-olds are three years ahead of ours.
Given that pupils in England spend only 195 days per year in school, home demands are hardly excessive. Former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, gave head teachers the power to determine how much homework a school should set. It is to be hoped that they will not be persuaded to lessen the, already, light load. Worthwhile and carefully planned homework is a real benefit to out children and most youngsters will agree.