It was with delight that I received a letter from my children’s school explaining their new approach to homework – that the only thing children would be expected to do at home would be to read, enjoy and talk about books. The whooping and dancing were not reflective of a neglectful approach to parenting. Not that I am NEVER guilty of that. My daughter no longer gives me letters that have to be returned to school; she just holds them for me to read, hands me a pen to sign on the line and whips it away before I can accidentally recycle it or write a shopping list on it. (That I recycle and write shopping lists must surely be seen as evidence that I TRY not to neglect either the planet or my children.)
My response to the homework policy was as a professional working in education who sees this issue from both sides. And on neither side do I see it working.
Professor John Hattie is a highly respected researcher in education, who has been described as “possibly the world’s most influential education academic” by the Times Educational Supplement. He has spent years studying what influences learning, analysing studies from around the world, covering 80 million students. His Visible Learning approach, which encourages teachers to use the approaches that actually make a difference, has been adopted by schools around the world and many here in Scotland.
Within this it is interesting to discover that, contrary to the firmly held beliefs of parents and teachers alike, homework has little impact until children are of secondary school age. While schools have embraced the rest of Hattie’s work, many have been nervous about acting on this. Why is this? I think the answer might be us – parents.
I have been interested in parents’ responses to this change in our school. Many are delighted to feel they are being given some time to enjoy their children after school. Some are relieved to no longer have to battle through activities that their children resist with passion. Other however, have concerns about the potential risks of leaving homework altogether. They see homework as a key pillar of education and are worried that removing it will leave the whole endeavour less safe as a result. This can be even more the case for parents worried that their children are not keeping up with their peers.
It strikes me as being a bit like the case for antibiotics from your GP. When my children are really ill, I desperately want them to be better and go to the GP hopeful that there will be some magic medicine to achieve this. However, the doctor knows that most of the illnesses she sees wont be affected by antibiotics. Indeed giving them may be counterproductive, building resistance for when they are really needed. So my GP does not respond to my pleading eyes and write a prescription to make ME feel better. She trusts her professional knowledge instead and rises to her responsibility to do what is best for my child. And although it feels disappointing at the time, I trust the training and ongoing study of my GP and know that she will be there to continue to support us and change her approach if necessary.
I have heard that there are some GPs who do prescribe more freely, perhaps because it is easier, but I believe that this is lessening as the evidence becomes more widely known and public opinion changes accordingly.
Similarly with homework, we parents want our children to have the best opportunities to learn and develop with a view to becoming the best they can be. Just like wanting our children to be well, this is a positive attitude. However, when considering the means to achieve it we need to trust the professionals tasked with knowing this. While our gut feeling might be that more work must be better and that we have a responsibility to help with this, the evidence does not back this up, at primary school. Indeed, my experience as a parent is that homework takes time away from enjoying activities together, adds pressure to family life and doesn’t actually influence my children’s learning.
My children tend to find their homework straightforward and I used to be a teacher, so it’s not difficult for me to help them when they don’t. Yet, still I find it a stress. How much more difficult must it be then for children who are struggling and whose parents haven’t been trained to teach them, not to mention those who have other pressures in life that must take precedence over ‘rainbow writing’. To be putting families under this pressure when it DOES NOT WORK, is wrong.
As a professional, often working with children who are finding school particularly difficult, I frequently have to reassure parents and talk them out of their plans to hire tutors and buy all sorts of well marketed products to save their child from going under. Ironically, it is often the pressure of doing more and more of what they find difficult that leaves them feeling like they are drowning. Most teachers I speak to agree with me on this and will tell parents to leave it if children are struggling or are finding it too stressful. Yet few have the confidence to stop giving homework altogether. Our schools need confident, well informed leaders to make such a grand change.
Now, just like the GP, the well-trained teacher will be able to assess and respond to individual situations according to their need. For some children, in some circumstances, doing some work at home might well be helpful. However, giving everyone homework to tackle that would be like giving my children antibiotics every time they have a sore throat just in case it is tonsillitis, without even looking in their mouths.
As an aside, I wonder if part of the issue here is the gradual erosion of trust in public sector workers that has taken place over the last few decades. New Public Management approaches encouraged the questioning of public sector professionals and made them answerable to their service users. And while I don’t disagree with this in principle – I think I should be answerable to the people I work with and often tell parents it is their job to ask questions – I do wonder if an unfortunate side effect has been to make the public forget just how much training and expertise a professional has.
Teachers are better trained and more knowledgeable now than they have ever been. It amazes me how much they are expected to know and that they achieve this with calm professionalism, occasionally seeking advice from others like myself when they discover there is more they need to know.
If you as a parent feel strongly that your child needs more input on a particular area, of course you can do whatever you feel will help them. Or better still, talk to your school about your concerns. In my experience of working with lots of headteachers in lots of schools, I find that the ones most ready to stand up for their principles are also the ones most open to listening to parents and taking their concerns seriously. The best schools develop not from a ‘them and us’ approach between parents and staff but from parents listening to and supporting their teachers, knowing that they will be listened to and supported in return.
If your school is changing its policy on homework, or anything else, find out why and if you find teachers studying what works best and being brave enough to do it despite cultural norms, congratulate yourself on your luck. You’ve got a good team.
Our school policy is not to do no homework at all. It is to focus on reading. This reflects the national Reading Challenge that has been launched in Scotland, which recognises the importance of reading as a building block for all educational achievement. The school has also been quite explicit about parents spending time with their children enjoying and talking about books. So it is not the ‘reading homework’ that I remember of robotically reading a page of words then wondering why Janet wasn’t yet bored with John. This is about doing what many parents do anyway – cuddling in, reading stories and developing language and literacy skills in a safe and comforting environment. It also encourages us to keep this going beyond the early years. My 11 year old, competent reader still enjoys being read to at night, and this allows her to enjoy books that would be more difficult for her to appreciate on her own. (I am loving Little Women but good luck to anyone trying to read Treasure Island aloud – sentences so long you must surely develop a diver’s breathing capacity in the process.)
I am glad our school leaders are being brave in this. I don’t want my children to be in a school – or a GP practice- where decisions are made my majority rule. I want them to be cared for by professionals who know their field and have the confidence to stand up for what’s right. And I intend to stand by them while they do.