Setting the right balance on homework is a tight-rope walk for teachers, but Britain’s so-called ‘strictest school’ has a plan, explains Jo Facer

Every school faces the challenge of getting kids to practise what they need to, but without gaming it. Teachers have all encountered pupils who will do the bare minimum to avoid a sanction.

While it is the weakest pupils who benefit most from homework, it is also the weakest pupils who are least likely to complete it. At Michaela, we have tried and rejected a number of approaches to homework.

To begin with, we tried reading logs, but rejected these when we realised pupils were simply making up plausible-sounding sentences about the books they were pretending to read.

We then set pages of a common book to read at home, but found great difficulty in testing completion. One single multiple-choice question threw up false positives – kids just guessing the right answer and avoiding a detention – as well as false negatives – kids who had done the required reading but somehow managed to answer the question incorrectly.

We also rejected vocabulary books, where pupils wrote out five new words they had learned from their reading, as these were burdensome to check, and pupils were found to be reusing the same words!

Each day we have a homework completion rate of 97-100 per cent

We have come to recognise that we can never actually know if a pupil has read anything without reading it with them. All form tutors read the same book with their classes for 20 minutes in afternoon form-time every day, and our weakest readers attend a 30-minute reading club with a specialist teacher who can hold them to account.

Now, the only homework set by subject teachers at Michaela is self-quizzing. We all set the same homework to encourage high completion rates: each day we have a homework completion rate of 97-100 per cent.

Centralising homework in this way is essential: in our previous schools, teachers would set a variety of homework tasks and children would often be lost as to how to complete them. To self-quiz, pupils simply need to learn key terms from their knowledge organiser and write them from memory.

Knowledge organisers are one page, split into sections, distilling the core knowledge for a given unit for pupils.

The difficulty of self-quizzing is knowing whether the pupils have genuinely focused and learned content, or whether they have just copied it out. To check what was happening, we began setting a quiz the following day on the same material. The results were revealing: when we first started it, around a third of pupils were failing the quiz.

Today, almost no pupils fail: they are now held to account by their teachers. The pupils complete a short quiz which their teachers sort, using comparative judgement, into two piles: ‘got it’ and ‘not got it.’ Pupils who fail are targeted by their teachers in later lessons to ensure they catch up with their peers.

After visiting a number of the country’s leading state and private schools, we introduced a further strand to homework that we called ‘extended prep’, as we did not want our own pupils to fall behind. We set a one-page essay or one-page written test in each subject in addition to their self-quizzing, and their writing transformed. With all this additional practice, pupils were suddenly far more capable of writing at length under timed conditions.

Unfortunately, a group of pupils opted out entirely, preferring to sit a 30-minute detention than to complete a 30-minute prep. This had such a hit to buy-in that we have now dramatically reduced the amount of extended prep we set – just one essay a week in year 9 – and from next year we will phase it in gradually, with our headmistress leading assemblies to parents to explain its importance.

Having a centralised detention system ensures that all teachers set prep and follow it up. Setting the same prep each night – in our case, self-quizzing along with maths practice questions marked online – ensures very high completion rates. We’re not there yet, but we hope one day to find that sweet spot – where the kids are learning loads, but also loving school – including homework.

 

Jo Facer is head of English at Michaela Community School