While the rules were not statutory, teachers came under pressure to follow them as they were said to give “a clear idea of what is reasonable to expect at different ages”. They also allowed parents to challenge teachers who set more, or less, than the recommended level. Many schools reproduced the guidelines in their own homework policies.
Supporters of homework warned scrapping the guidelines could lead to some schools abandoning it altogether, to spare teachers the trouble of extra marking.
Opposition has grown towards the guidelines, fuelled by an anti-homework movement in the United States and research questioning the efficacy of such assignments, particularly in primary schools.
Teachers complain about chasing up missing work and argue that it causes upset among the youngest pupils, while parents have claimed that too much study is making children anxious and reducing the time available for sports and play.
Some primaries have already abandoned traditional homework. Since September Frittenden Church of England Primary, in Kent, has replaced it with an optional weekly 45-minute homework club.
Elizabeth Bradshaw, the head teacher, said: “We had feedback from parents, or notes to the teachers, saying 'my child is very worried that they haven’t completed it on time’, or the child would come in to the classroom in tears because they had left it in the car. We simply wanted to remove that stress and focus on the learning for that week in a homework club where it is done, marked, and informs the learning of the next week.”
Ryde School, a primary in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, regards activities such as a walk in the countryside, playing board games and cooking as “homework”.
Its policy states: “Children are not little adults and therefore cannot be expected to study at home as adults do. Children spend six hours a day at school and are usually tired or 'filled’ with school learning by the end of the day. Homework must be kept to a minimum and be of a light, relaxed nature.”
The Department for Education said yesterday that the shake-up formed part of the Government’s plan to give more autonomy to schools.
Allsopp, who has two children and two stepchildren, said: “If you have three children, what happens to the other children while the parent is settled in the corner helping each one with their half an hour of homework? Eating a pizza alone. It ends up separating families at that key time.
“Learning at home should be about people doing things together as a family – reading a book, eating, watching an interesting documentary, attending an exhibition that ties in with what the child has been doing at school. These things are incredibly important. What I am 'anti’ is the silly task set by a teacher to tick a box.
“Sometimes homework can set child against parent. I remember someone I’m very close to was in Sainsbury’s and the child was in tears saying 'We’ve got to go, mummy – if I don’t do my homework I won’t be allowed in the playground tomorrow’. It is very important that parents back up what goes on in school, that is paramount. But some homework is almost adversarial.”
But Chris McGovern, a former head teacher and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, warned that scrapping the guidelines could send the 'wrong message’ to schools.
He said: “The danger is that schools will use this as an excuse to dilute the amount of homework. Middle-class children will do their homework anyway. Guidance for children who are coming from more deprived backgrounds is probably more important.”
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, said: “I’m all in favour of trusting schools but I hope that Ofsted will check that appropriate amounts of homework are being set.
“There’s a risk in abandoning the guidelines that some schools and some teachers will see it as the green light to get rid of the unwelcome burden of marking lots of homework.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Homework is part and parcel of a good education, along with high quality teaching and strong discipline. “We trust head teachers to set the homework policy for their school. They know their pupils best and should be free to make these decisions without having to adhere to unnecessary bureaucratic guidance.”
The shake-up comes as a new study by London’s Institute of Education reveals that homework, even in small amounts, boosts the academic attainment and social skills of secondary school pupils.
The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project showed that homework was linked to improvements in 14-year-olds’ academic prowess and social skills as well as reductions in levels of aggression and impulsiveness.
Lisa Trotman, a mother of two, from Bristol, said homework could cause friction at home but helped prepared children for the workload of secondary school.
Her son Cameron, 11, who is in his final year at primary school is set homework on Friday evening which must be handed in by Wednesday.
"If I can catch him when he's still in school mode, we get it done quite smoothly," said Mrs Trotman. "Otherwise it's prodding and pushing, cajoling and encouraging over the weekend.
"I think it has been useful as a preparation for big school."
Cameron also attends an Explore Learning Centre, where he receives private tuition in maths and English twice a week.
Personally, my view is that homework is totally unnecessary for primary school pupils and those in the first three years of secondary school education. However, I will concede that it is necessary when students reach their crucial exam years.
At that stage – from year 10 and higher – homework assignments serve a purpose; they provide opportunities for students to develop valuable skills in independent research, academic citing, and the fundamental principles of academic honesty.
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Ultimately each school, teacher and parent will draw their own line in the sand when determining the correct age for pupils to be given homework; but discussions over homework should not stop there.
What must be asked is the value homework provides to students and, in my opinion, that debate should be based upon three questions:
• Is that homework beneficial for the student’s personal education goals?
• Will homework assignments help to develop the student’s independent learning skills?
• How can educators guard against placing undue pressure on students and help parents support their child’s learning?
Today, league tables and exam results have created a mechanistic education system. Schools, pupils and teachers are too often focused on achieving scores and targets.
In my view, this underpins the homework debate, and it completely negates the truest goal of education, which is to inspire and nurture a student’s love for learning.
For parents, when it comes to homework, there is a fine line between helping your children and doing the work for them. Just as teachers should avoid placing unwarranted pressure on their students, parents should appreciate that by doing the work for them, they are in fact hindering their child’s ability to think independently.
Homework becomes an exercise in futility if children aren’t allowed to take charge of their own learning. Instead, parents should put their efforts into providing an environment which helps to instil a real desire to learn.
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As I have already stated, there will always be times, such as exam preparation, when parents and teachers need to ensure students are studying at home. In my opinion, the true issue isn’t whether students should work at home, it’s whether homework should be routinely assigned?
If schools are teaching correctly and engaging students, the majority of homework becomes irrelevant. In my experience, engaged students regardless of age will, on their own initiative, actively seek to advance their knowledge and learning outside of school. In such cases the teacher and parent roles should then act to support this drive in whatever way they can.
In my own school (which I should mention is an international sixth-form boarding school), we try to use experiential learning to engage and enthuse our students. We do this by providing a dual programme which sees students split their school time equally between academics and corresponding extra-curricular activities.
Frequently, students themselves will take the lead in setting up extra-curricular activities outside of school hours.
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Having taught in many kinds of schools in the UK and abroad, I can honestly say that no-other curriculum does more to encourage students to become actively involved in their own learning.
While I accept that not every school will have the luxury of adopting a co-curricular programme to the extent we have; it’s an option I actively encourage them to try, and I believe it would be more readily welcomed by their students.
Personally, I don’t think schools should routinely issue students with homework (particularly below GCSE classes). Ultimately, as a parent your question shouldn’t be “why are schools giving so much homework?” but rather, “is this homework relevant, interesting and does it encourage independent thinking?”
John Walmsley is principal of UWC Atlantic College