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How Consistent are your Homework Policies Across Different Classes?

Meet the school that’s trying a new approach, says Dr Amanda Barton...

  • How Consistent are your Homework Policies Across Different Classes?

If the word ‘homework’ fills you with dread as a parent, take heart: you’re not alone.

A few issues ago, Teach Primary columnist Debra Kidd made no bones about complaining that homework tasks such as costume making and model building are ‘pointless’ and eat into precious family time. Debra’s of the opinion that children don’t seem to learn anything from these kind of tasks.

Didsbury Road Primary in Heaton Mersey, Stockport, would beg to differ. The school has launched an initiative to engage children and parents in what they prefer to call ‘learning at home’, rather than ‘homework’.

Assistant headteacher Liza Ferdinand, explains that the catalyst for the project was a parents’ evening in October 2016. “The issue first came up in relation to homework tasks that were being set during the school holidays,” Liza says.

“Some of the parents asked us why one of their children was being given homework, but the other, in a different year group, was not. That led to a staffroom discussion about how consistent we are as staff in setting homework and made us focus on how we can engage parents with learning at home, rather than homework.”

More harm than good

With the assistance of Institute of Education staff from the University of Manchester, Liza and colleague Laura Whitehead, a Y3 teacher, set about surveying their stakeholders’ attitudes to the setting of homework.

Parents and teachers were given a questionnaire and four pupils from each year group, including Reception, took part in focus group interviews.

The survey revealed not only inconsistencies in the setting of homework but in teachers’ views of the value of homework.

Almost half of the 17 staff who responded set homework during the holidays and not all were positive about the benefits of homework, with one teacher outlining the negative impact: “Homework can cause more harm than good. Apart from reading I don’t believe in setting homework at primary level.”

Another teacher recognised the challenges faced by children in squeezing homework into their already overcrowded lives, saying, “Children are very busy outside school with clubs and sports. Homework is hard to do sometimes.”

The questionnaire also raised the issue of whether homework should be cross-curricular or set in discrete subjects; 41% of teachers thought that activities in discrete subjects, notably English and maths, would be more beneficial.

Under pressure

“We were amazed by the parental response,” says Liza. “116 parents filled in the questionnaire and I think they were really pleased to be asked. Although three-quarters of our parents claimed to be happy with the amount of homework given, it raised issues about whether the children should be put under pressure to complete homework.

“Most parents said that they would prefer to be given a bank of suggested activities which they could complete with their children in their own time. One parent explained her belief that holidays should be for processing what has been learnt. The pupils’ responses reflected this, too.”

On the basis of their findings, the school decided to stop sending out holiday homework tasks. Instead, teachers provide suggestions for cross-curricular activities that parents can complete with their children in the holidays, or as extension activities in term-time.

A list of activities to enjoy at home is posted on the website for each year group and is changed each term. The activities are largely practical or discussion-based and are not compulsory.

Staff do not monitor whether children complete them, but pupils are invited to bring into school what they have done at home for ‘show and tell’. There is also a plan to put aside an afternoon at the end of each half term to showcase what pupils have done at home.

Home activities include both discussion and practical activities. Reception children, for instance, are given a series of questions about Bonfire Night. What did you see on Bonfire Night? What sounds did you hear? What shapes and colours did you see? What did you smell or eat?

They are also asked to put a bird feeder outside and count how many different kinds of birds visit it. Y5 children are asked, under the heading of history, if they can find any Anglo Saxon place names nearby, or a Norman castle they could visit, and to find out more about who defeated the Anglo Saxons.

Thinking skills

How does Liza respond to the charge that primary homework has no impact on pupil achievement? “I think it really depends on what it’s for,” she says.

“Our learning at home activities are intended to engage parents in what their children are learning in the classroom and extend it through discussion and activity at home. They embed the learning that goes on in the classroom and give it more purpose.

“There may be a question about whether consolidating what’s done in class really has any merit, but what we’re promoting is discussing and sharing ideas, as well as developing listening and speaking skills – whether that’s in the museum or the park.

“There are lots of screens around us and this is about encouraging parents to create a space away from technology in which their children can develop their thinking skills. We also hope that children’s language and vocabulary will be developed because they’re discussing these ideas with an adult.”

The project seems to have been well-received to date; follow-up questionnaires and interviews are planned for later in the year.

Four tips for happy home learning

  • Engage whole staff in discussion about the school’s homework policy, what their views are on the value of homework, and what they want children to get out of it.
  • To ensure a consistent approach, put time aside at a staff meeting or Inset day for everyone to draft and upload their suggestions for their year group’s home activities.
  • The best way of engaging parents in learning at home is to consult the children on which activities they would like to be set. If the children have an interest in the activities, they are more likely to go home and urge their parents to complete the tasks with them. Also ask parents for their views on the role of homework.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to become involved in research projects facilitated by colleagues in higher education or teacher training providers. They can benefit your own professional development as well as your school, as Liza relates: “It was really refreshing having time to reflect and the opportunity to stand back and ask if we were doing it right or consider whether we should be doing something else.”

Dr Amanda Barton is a freelance writer, educational consultant and teacher trainer. Follow her on Twitter at @amandabook2.

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