In search of home truths

Homework is in. Tony Blair has set forth his vision of a nation of pupils busy under their lamps, and the Government concurs. But what difference does homework really make to a child's education? Lucy Hodges investigates
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This week we have witnessed heavy marketing of homework. Tony Blair wants primary schoolchildren to do a minimum of half an hour a night and secondary school pupils a minimum of one-and-a-half hours. The Government advocates similar medicine - though it is leaving the amount up to headteachers.

Given such enthusiasm for the Protestant work ethic, it seems almost churlish to ask whether homework is always a valuable activity. Not everyone is convinced it is, particularly if the tasks set are mindless, too difficult or consume inordinate amounts of quality family time.

Some education experts are similarly concerned about the fuss. They are worried about the prescriptive nature of the Blair plan. They think it may work against families without CD-Roms, without books and without two graduate parents. And they wonder whether the nation's children will end up totally knackered after fitting their homework around their after-school ballet, aikido, gym and brownies.

"I can't help seeing it as crude electioneering," says Bill Laar, former chief inspector of Westminster's education service and now an independent education consultant. "I think homework is valuable but if you insist on making children do 30 or 90 minutes a night, you will see the gap between the achievers and the non-achievers widen."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that parents like homework. They think their children should be set homework and they want to see it marked regularly. But Margaret Morrisey, chairman of the National Association of Parent Teacher Associations, does not favour the Government deciding how much children should do each evening. "Every child is different," she says. "We would like schools, together with parents, to decide how much to do."

David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge University and former chief inspector of the Inner London Education Authority, agrees. His criticism of the Labour plan is instructive because he is a great fan of homework. His seminal 1984 report, "Improving Secondary Schools", estimated that schools which set homework were in effect adding an extra year to the five years of secondary schooling. "By the same token, a school that is sloppy is denying a secondary school child one year's education," he adds.

But the amount of homework should be left to local decision, says Professor Hargreaves. "I am very uneasy about ministers mandating what schools should do on this matter. You will get people conforming to it in a bureaucratic way."

Research on the effectiveness of homework is hard to come by. One of the earliest studies containing a reference to the subject was Sir Michael Rutter's "15,000 Hours" in 1979, which commented that schools which set homework frequently and where there was some kind of check on its existence had better outcomes than schools which didn't.

Other studies from America make clear the relationship between homework and achievement. One - from the University of Illinois - showed that a student who would perform in the middle of his age group without homework would rise almost to the top third if he did an average amount of homework. Research on English grammar-school boys found that working-class children benefited more from homework than their more affluent classmates.

This, according to Professor Hargreaves, is the reason why all schools should set homework. To argue that homework exacerbates the class divide is dangerous, he asserts. "If you're not going to give working-class children homework you're denying them the same opportunities as the middle classes," he says. But to ensure equal access to homework means laying on homework centres for children who are disadvantaged at home by not having a quiet, warm place in which to work.

So why is homework so effective? Mainly, it seems, because it enables pupils to hone the practice of independent study. Or as Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park comprehensive in west London, puts it: "There is no doubt that successful students are successful independent learners. Homework is one means you use to get them to develop that capacity.

"It is not a panacea. The quality of it matters as much as the quantity. Students need to understand why they're doing it and how it fits in with what they're covering in class."

Homework also enables children to practise what they have been doing in lessons and to consolidate their skills. Furthermore, it opens the door to a closer partnership between schools and parents because mums and dads can get involved with the work, helping their offspring to look up words in a dictionary, use an encyclopaedia or visit the library. They can also see gaps in knowledge and understanding at first hand.

Properly thought-out homework, which is integrated into what is being taught in the classroom and which is interesting to do, can work like magic, according to Jim Hudson, head of Two Mile Ash middle school in Milton Keynes. "The experience of this school is that children really do enjoy it," he says.

But Mr Blair should take note: all heads say that what matters is the quality not the quantity of homework. "The main issue is what you put into the time," says Chris Bugden, head of Thomas A Becket middle school in Worthing. "Children don't want to do dull, repetitive exercises. They won't do it if they see it as meaningless"n

The good homework guide

Parents are encouraged to check, listen, test and help

All parents of children at Thomas A Becket middle school in Worthing, Sussex, receive a leaflet about the homework policy which sets out what is expected of them and their children, aged eight to 12.

For younger ones, aged eight and nine, homework consists of reading, the learning of spellings and the learning of tables. In addition, children get extra homework. They might be asked to bring in things to show the class or to find out information needed in a particular lesson.

Year 4 (ages eight and nine) has been doing the Romans as a topic. Homework might consist of looking up Rome in the atlas and plotting the route that the invading armies might have taken to reach England or bringing in information about a local Roman site.

In years 6 and 7 (ages 10 and 11) homework follows a timetable and is set for English, mathematics, science and French and, occasionally, for technology, history and geography.

Typically a 10-year-old receives half-an-hour each evening; an 11-year- old gets 45 minutes. Normally children are given several days in which to complete the homework.

Year 7 has been conducting an experiment on alkalis by testing which antacids are most effective. For homework they were asked to write up the experiment.

Each child in years 6 and 7 is given a homework diary in which to record the work set each night. Parents are asked to sign each week before it is countersigned by the class teacher, and to record any problems.

Mums and dads are also encouraged to help their children with homework by testing them, listening to them read, asking them to explain what they have written, checking for neatness and accuracy and helping them with reference material.

The school runs a "Homework Recovery" programme once a week after 4 pm for children who have fallen behind

Meanwhile, one local education authority which has been helping children with homework is Kirklees. Last October it launched a new library initiative which meant setting up a homework collection in each library, containing encyclopaedias, dictionaries and reference books to help with homework topics.

The collections are book-based at the moment but the aim is to add new technology such as CD-Roms and personal computers when cash becomes available. One local library in the area is running a homework club in association with the local school. The library supplies the books and the school the supervision. Other local authorities have also set up homework clubs after school, run by the education or library service. One of the most developed library homework club systems is operated by the borough of Southwark in south Londonn