First published 10 November, 2016 by Daily Record: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/highland-councils-brave-decision-end-9222165
THIS week, something amazing happened.
Inverlochy Primary, a little school of just 175 pupils in Fort William, has done something truly revolutionary.
No, they haven’t opted out of council control, instituted daily standardised testing of all pupils or started a campaign to bring back the belt (because things were better in someone’s day).
What they have done is simple – they’ve decided to stop setting homework.
Yes, you did read that correctly – no more homework.
The move, which was backed by 80 per cent of pupils and 60 per cent of parents, means that children will be encouraged to read books or comics rather than dotting i’s, crossing t’s and doing sums at the kitchen table each night (or the school bus each morning).
I must confess to getting rather excited by this. Why? Because it looks like that incredibly rare thing – a genuinely bold education initiative driven by what is best for pupils, not politicians and pencil pushers. Hallelujah.
It takes real guts to challenge orthodoxy and there are few things more orthodox, more lazily ingrained in our whole view of what education is and should be than homework.
But wait – I hear you cry – homework is vital, isn’t it? I was given loads of homework at school and it didn’t do me any harm.
I mean, the Scottish Government even has a whole section of its website saying homework is really important, and they must know what they’re talking about when it comes to education (stop sniggering at the back).
Well, actually – no.
This might seem counter-intuitive but when it comes to primary school children the evidence is actually pretty clear – homework has, at best, a tiny impact on pupils’ progress. This is partly because a lot of homework is little more than pointless busy-work and partly because a great deal of it is set in response to school-wide homework policies rather than the carefully considered needs of each pupil.
It is also partly because the inability to control the conditions in which homework is completed, if it is completed, makes the whole exercise an act of faith – which Tom Bennett, an adviser to the Department of Education in England and founder of educational research organisation ResearchED, accurately described as “a boomerang thrown into the darkness”.
And the problems don’t end there, because our obsession with homework also has numerous other downsides: it places an unnecessary strain on young children who already spend enough of their day completing school work; it eats into the (increasingly) limited time available for families to talk, read and play together – all of which are more useful for children’s learning; it adds to the already unacceptable workloads faced by over-worked teachers.
Worst of all, the sort of homework regimes in place across Scotland are, if anything, likely reinforcing the gap between the rich (who tend to go home to environments conducive to effective learning) and the poor (who all too often do not).
That’s a lot of time, attention and resources focused on something that certainly isn’t doing much, if any, good and, at worst, could be having a negative overall effect.
Bad ideas – like homeopathy, prohibition or voting Tory – are infuriatingly resilient but they should always be challenged.
So just imagine if, from this little pebble, a wave were to spread. What would it take to make this sort of change a success nationwide?
Firstly, parents would have to be offered help and advice on how best to support their kids without the obvious, but flawed, framework traditional homework has provided. Done well, this could make ending homework the catalyst for improving parents’
involvement in their children’s education. That can only be a good thing.
Secondly, we would have to ensure all children have easy, stigma-free access to books. Lots and lots of books. Yes, that would cost money but let’s keep things in perspective – the £12million the government are going to spend on an overtly-political standardised testing regime could put a new library in around three-quarters of Scots primary schools. It’s just a matter of priorities.
The political weaponisation of education makes it difficult to really improve things but this little school in the Highlands has reminded us that real alternatives to stagnant educational thinking are out there.
Sometimes progress depends on simply having the courage to make the right decisions and that’s exactly what Inverlochy Primary School has done.
Image credit: Hades2k (https://www.flickr.com/photos/hades2k/7437152606)