It’s the dilemma every secondary school faces: how do you set an amount of homework that satisfies parents across the board? Roy Tarleton, headteacher of South Dartmoor Community College, thinks he’s cracked it

Why is it that when parents are asked about issues they have with their school, one group of parents will always indicate that too much homework is set, while another will tell you that there is too little?

We started to look at this issue three years ago and did some research into student attitudes and activities. What we found surprised us. Year 7 children told us that they spent close to the required amount of time per subject set. This started to drop off in Year 8 and by Year 9, rather than increasing their commitment, they were spending much less time on homework. Instead of learning the art of independent study, they had learned how to avoid doing it.

We began by redefining homework, setting out clearly for parents our expectations and our views about its purpose. To do this, we spent some time discussing these with our staff, governors, the students themselves and a working group of parents.

We decided to change the nature of homework in the first term of Year 7 in order to teach some of the essential study skills necessary to complete homework throughout the key stage. At the parental induction evening in the summer, and in literature we sent out, we explained the purpose of homework and of the skills-based induction.

Linking concepts
Further research persuaded us that we needed to link the concept of learning at home with learning at school. As a result, we changed the title from homework to home learning. I am not a great believer in the use of jargon and educational language for its own sake, but this is one change that does help alter the culture. We briefed parents on these changes using a range of opportunities: in our parental induction processes, in communications, newsletters, on our website and during parental consultations.

We refocused partnerships with parents, using a non-teaching day to allow them to have a quality interview with tutors in which data was provided about performance, including home learning, which we now report on three times a year. This allowed us to control the agenda with our parents ensuring that we targeted and saw all those who needed to work with us. Part of this consultation interview focuses on how parents can better support their children and how important home learning is to final grades. Where there are concerns, these 20-minute interviews give them a chance to look at the data on a computer in a private space, supported by senior staff.

We have also re-introduced subject consultation evenings but these are now by invitation only, are data-focused and again the spotlight is on under-performance. This generally means that students are not committing sufficient time and resource to learning carried out at home and independently. These new subject evenings are remodelled on the doctor’s surgery concept – but the GP calls you in because you need repair work. It’s a complete transformation from the old five-minute sessions, long queues and superficial conversations.

Keeping parents in the picture
When parents pose the question: ‘What have you been set for home learning this evening?’, the answer should never again be: ‘We weren’t set any’, or a similar grunt. Instead parents now know that students have a wide range of extension tasks which they should commit to. We send learning letters to parents outlining these tasks.

Our learning letters indicate to parents the ways in which their children can be successful home learners and how they can support their children. For example, we ask a child who gets stuck on a task not to spend unnecessary time worrying: ‘Stop and find the teacher the following day to ask for help. This is a good use of learning time. If you have used up all your time and haven’t finished, ask a parent to write a note at the bottom of the work.’

This year we have moved to a personalised home learning timetable for every child. Teachers indicate on a grid the day on which they will set home learning and the day on which it is to be collected in. The children then comb through the days set and deadline day to write down the evening on which they will actually carry out the tasks set. This might be during the week or at the weekend. We also complete, on their timetable, a list of days and times when children do extra- curricular activities. It gives the parent and the tutor an overview of the child’s work beyond the school day and allows us to pick up on any issues of time management.

However much home learning is set, students will always try to pretend that they have finished or that none has been given in the first place. Processes such as partnerships with parents and the use of new technology will allow us to get closer to the day when the school will be in every home. Then we may have the Goldilocks’ solution – not too much and not too little but just right.