Peter Stanford: The burden of homework is too heavy

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The Independent Online

Homework has been a controversial subject in our house since my son's primary school starting setting it when he was seven. Most of the controversy has consisted of me encouraging, bribing and sometimes all but forcing my children to do it. But there have also been times, with them collapsed at 9pm over their maths, when they have raised their heads wearily to ask, "what is the point of it?" To which, in that moment, I have no satisfactory answer.

That private stand-off, replayed around the land, has now taken on a wider resonance with the decision of the high-achieving Tiffin School in Kingston, Surrey and the soon-to-open Nottingham East Academy, to reduce and even abandon homework. Gary James, Tiffin's deputy head, said too much homework could put pupils off learning. "We had boys doing three or four hours a night at the expense of sports, music practice or having fun. Something's not right when a boy can't sit down and watch a nature documentary on TV because he's too busy doing maths," he said.

Homework, we are told, is to encourage "independent learning", which is fine in principle. In practice this is only possible if the home boasts books and computers, an encouraging parent, and a quiet space. In other words, setting homework to encourage independent learning gives another advantage to middle class children.

Then there is the other standard justification of homework as a method of reinforcement. It reinforces what children have learnt in class before they move on to another subject. It highlights for the teacher if children have failed to understand and need more assistance.

Many times I have been tempted to write at the bottom of my children's completed pieces of work, over which we have spilt blood, sweat and tears, "and how precisely is this reinforcement?" Too often it is simply finishing off what has not been completed in the lesson. If that's the case, school hours need to be extended, or the curriculum trimmed, rather than the burden shifted to home.

The fact that I have never dared to deface a homework book with such revolutionary thoughts points to the real reason our children are overburdened with homework. Some teachers admit that, nine times out of 10, they set homework because they believe parents want to see their children doing it. It is akin to them bringing home proof that they are being stretched at school – which, of course, is what we all say we want.

And so an unhealthy dynamic has developed. Teachers set homework in the belief that it pleases parents. Parents don't disabuse them of this, even when it is exhausting their child, because they don't want him or her to be singled out or seen as failing. I have lost count of how often I have been told at parent-teacher gatherings, "if homework is taking longer than x minutes, make your child leave it unfinished and send in a note". When I have suggested doing this, my children fly into a rage. Their life won't be worth living, they moan. The threat, indeed, usually proves enough to give them a second wind to finish the assignment.

Given that everyone can't go to Tiffin School, the relationship between parents and teachers over homework needs to change. We need more honesty from parents in speaking up when their child is struggling, more rigour from teachers in applying the principle of reinforcement when setting homework, and more imagination in ensuring that goals for independent learning are within reach of every child. And not just to make themselves more popular with mums and dads. "Research shows," says professor Dylan Wiliam of the Institute of Education in London, "homework does not make much of a difference, but that is because it is not properly planned."