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Headmaster's Blog

The value of Homework

It is difficult to escape the debate about homework. Not quite as divisive as Brexit, it is nevertheless an issue that puts people into firmly opposed camps, those that are emphatic about the importance of homework and the discipline and routines that it helps establish for a child and those that question its value at all. Of course, there are shades of grey in between but there are certainly strong opinions!

Do my children jump at the opportunity to do their homework – no, but in fairness they are still very young and the greater emphasis on homework is something to which they are still becoming accustomed. I am sure that amongst the parent body of most schools, there is the expectation that children should be set homework – it is a rite of passage that we have all gone through during our own childhood and therefore we expect that our children should grow up learning in the same way. However, just because it has ever been thus, does that mean it should still be the same? Only last week Ofsted announced that they will no longer be looking at homework as part of their inspection framework when they assess how pupils are assessed at school. Does this mean that homework is now redundant?

I must confess I find myself conflicted on the topic. There are researchers such as Alfie Kohn who are forceful in their views that homework is ‘all pain and no gain’ to the extent that they would say that homework can actually diminish interest in learning. I am not of this view but I can understand how homework can have this effect. The important issue is whether or not the tasks being set are purposeful. Getting a child to complete a worksheet simply for the sake of occupying their time is no good at all and perish the thought that they ever get set the task of copying out notes from a text book. However, if the work offers a challenge and gets the child thinking and asking questions that will inspire them to explore a topic further, surely that is a positive for the development of any child. In these modern and uncertain times, it is important to encourage independent thinking and the ability to think outside of the box and it is the work done outside of the classroom that enables pupils to truly flourish and discover the topics and subjects about which they are passionate.

So what should you be expecting your children to be bringing home for homework? Should every homework be a written task? Are they telling you the truth when they say they have been asked to research something rather than do a written task? The position I am taking with the staff at Thorpe House is that the expectation I have of them is that the work they set has a rationale behind it, that it is genuinely purposeful and that they are not setting a task just for the sake of it. This is a waste of time for the pupils, it does little to enthuse them, and for the teacher it is placing on them an expectation that they must be marking these exercises when their time would be better spent planning excellent lessons that will challenge their pupils.

The next question is what does it mean for something to be purposeful? In the earlier years, should they be learning to spell a set of words or their times tables – absolutely! These are fundamentals that facilitate a good vocabulary and elasticity of the mind. Although we now live in an age where everything can be auto-corrected and looked up, we still want our children to be able to retain key information and have a good degree of literacy and numeracy skills and therefore these basic expectations are more than reasonable. Similarly, being set a reading task encourages the imagination and the opportunity to explore new worlds but it also provides ongoing examples of how to express oneself with the written word, a skill that I fear is fading rapidly amongst the youth of today which is leaving them increasingly disadvantaged when they look to go into the work place.

Equally, let’s make sure we have the opportunity to enjoy our children whilst they are young. If they are set too much homework in the early years, we miss out on the time that we can have playing games with them and they may also wish to pursue other interests such as music. What they learn from these activities should not be underestimated and is arguably every bit as valuable as any task set by the teachers at school. As a History teacher, not that I have done it yet, I may well set the boys a homework of playing Risk! On a serious note, don’t forget that they have been learning all day and it is important for children to have time to switch off and recharge. It is important for all of us.

As pupils progress into the latter stages of the Prep School and into the Senior School, the nature of the work must take a different tone. Whilst there is the need to set exercises that will enable the teachers to assess understanding they also need to be broadening the pupils’ horizons and exciting their enthusiasm to explore further. It follows that not every homework will be a written task so it is indeed reasonable for them to be researching and reading as a homework task, however, if that research or reading only takes 10 minutes then you should definitely be querying whether they have done enough! The idea behind such tasks is to have the pupils come into the next lesson and take ownership for their learning; they will be able to constructively challenge their peers (and teachers!) and they will be learning how to articulate their ideas clearly and in a way that demonstrates empathy and balance.

The knowledge that you and I had to learn at school because we did not have computers or the internet to readily call upon to provide the answers means that the nature of homework and the expectations you may have of your children has had to change. However, as I hope I have conveyed in this blog, it still has its place, providing it is purposeful and relevant. I appreciate not everyone will necessarily agree with all that I have said, including my wife (!), and I am always happy to discuss with parents their views on homework. No doubt the debate will continue.