Why schools should remove ‘mindless’ homework

Ben Evans, Headmaster at Edge Grove School, explains why schools need to rethink the purpose of homework

Homework, or ‘home learning’ as it should more accurately be named, is only worthwhile if it has a purpose and a positive outcome on pupil achievement and progress.  The idea that homework is simply a tick-box exercise and something to ‘dish out’ because it’s a Tuesday and “we always have maths homework on a Tuesday”, is both obsolete and a complete waste of time. 

There are, of course, many valuable aspects of home learning if adequate thought is put into the process. Reading at home is essential and not just silent reading to the end of the chapter or to a parent who is busy juggling two or three other things, but rather a quality session that is given the importance it deserves. A session where parents are able to read together with their child, question their recall and higher level inference skills, thoughts about the character and what may happen next, etc. Likewise, spellings, times tables, mental maths and exploration of the topics being studied in class are all useful exercises that can be completed at home. 

How much is too much?

In many schools, it is without doubt that children do get too much homework, especially up to the age of 14 years. Many parents believe that they can judge the ‘academic’ qualities of a school based on how many hours of homework its primary-aged children are given. The more hours of homework, that are set, must mean that the children are being challenged and that the academic rigour is high, right? This is all complete nonsense of course. More worryingly, many schools also advertise this as a good thing and use it a marketing tool, which seems ludicrous. There can be no substitute for pupils’ learning at school, with qualified teachers and collaboratively with their peers.  This is where the value-added lies and where children make the most progress. If hours of homework are needed to top-up learning and ensure adequate progress is being made then something very wrong is happening at school itself. 

Mindless ‘homework’ can be damaging

In any good school, children will be exposed to a rich and varied curriculum, academic challenges, creative learning activities, physical exercise, trips and visits, enrichment and so much more, every day. There will also be an expectation to listen carefully, focus, engage and work hard. Every lesson, activity and minute should be well used and purposeful. Therefore, children need the time after school to relax with their families, enjoy different activities, rest, reflect on what they have done during the day, experience opportunities (sport, dance, drama, etc) not necessarily available at school, and mentally prepare themselves for the next day.  

Mindless homework, simply filling one or two hours each evening for the sake of it, can be damaging for a child as is being dragged from one tutor to another in the mistaken belief that this can enhance and accelerate academic progress and attainment; both are very wrong. It is at the very least a counter-productive process and in today’s world where we are constantly reminded of the many children who suffer from mental health issues, it is the one most likely aspects of school life to induce stress, anxiety and extreme tiredness with absolutely zero benefit.

Where is the learning?

A maximum of 20–30 minutes of home learning each day (age depending) to include quality reading and questioning with a parent, weekly spellings (including MFL), mental maths and times tables are also essential. Anything else should be tailored to individual children and their needs. There is nothing worse than seeing a double page of maths sums completed for homework and all marked correct – where is the learning and where is the progress?

As children progress through school, homework will naturally increase in preparation for public exams (CE, GCSE, A-levels) and this type of independent study is extremely important – reviewing work covered, reading in preparation for the next lessons, consolidating understanding, exam question practice and generally ensuring all gaps are covered.

Ben Evans

Managing home learning

The setting and management of homework should be delivered centrally in any school so that there is consistency from subject to subject, teacher to teacher and across the year groups. Far too often teachers will set homework because they haven’t covered it in class, they think their subject is more important than others or simply because they have something additional to complete.  This then has a huge impact on pupils’ workload as they suddenly find themselves with twice the amount of homework they should have and tight deadlines to keep.

This is often the case for ‘holiday work’, which can leave parents and pupils with a huge list of projects to complete in what should be their time to rest and relax as family. Far more productive is to set a reading task with perhaps some follow up written work in preparation for the new term or to suggest visits to museums, exhibitions or places of interest that will help children to understand future units of study or simply improve their knowledge and understanding of things around them and the world in general whilst enjoying time as a family. 

Focus on pupil outcomes

Homework should already be evolving in innovative and forward thinking schools, who will be placing an importance on pupil outcomes, rather than blindly following processes which haven’t changed for decades. The biggest shift should be towards flipped learning which involves pupils using the school’s VLE (ready loaded with appropriate resources), carefully chosen educational websites or library books to read and gain an understanding of the topics to be studied in preparation for future lessons.  

This then allows the lessons in school to be used for higher level learning and understanding to take place and to really challenge children to attain and make progress (with invaluable teacher support and modelling). In the same way that traditional displays of beautifully presented work lining the classroom walls have no impact on learning or pupil progress, using home learning time to complete exercises from a worksheet has limited value too. Schools need to re-evaluate their provision to impact positively on pupil outcomes.

It’s not all ‘textbook’ stuff

There will always be a need for pupils to learn at home and involve parents in the process. The methods will continue to change with a greater use of online resources, google classroom and schools’ internal VLEs. Hopefully, this will evolve naturally and quickly.  Ultimately, if no other homework is set, children must continue to spend quality time reading with their parents, questioning what they have read and exploring themes, characterisations and vocabulary.  Likewise, exploring the world around them and discovering the awe and wonder of nature, history and science are all so much more interesting, purposeful and valuable than exercises from a textbook. 

For more on Edge Grove School visit edgegrove.com