Homework and uniforms in schools – blessings or curses?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 13 October 2016
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

Being honest, I did not enjoy homework as a pupil myself. While I loved reading for pleasure, particularly historical novels, I resented the time that homework took and at boarding school during mandatory study in the evenings I remember rushing the maths to get back to the latest novel.

The issue of the value of homework surfaces every now and again in the media and so this term we have schools in England again debating the pros and cons.

In Australia, recent research by Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in Sydney University Richard Walker has raised questions about the value of homework. https://youtu.be/Sx1V8uYwUGs

Important questions he poses include whether the homework involves new learning, is challenging, interesting and motivating for pupils and involves interaction with others. Certainly, he found that benefits for younger primary school age pupils were minimal.

Disadvantages reported included that young minds need rest and relaxation time to recover from the pressure and stresses of the school day. Equally loss of socialisation time with friends can reduce important skill acquisition and reduce well rounded social development. Certainly, an increase in conflict between parents and children can be expected. However, on the plus side it can be argued that with less together time these days, homework collaboration is important family bonding time. Teaching a child to be responsible, determined, methodical and organised and to meet deadlines is surely valuable too.

When a pupil first moves into secondary school, GCSE and A Level examinations can seem a long way off but my own experience has been that preparation for these life-changing challenges must begin then, reflecting exactly what Professor Walker found. Success in GCSE and A Level hinges on the ability to discipline oneself to study in an organised, methodical way and train the brain to remember facts. Yes, skill acquisition is important too but with the trend in the wider examination marketplace back towards more traditional assessment forms the coursework element has been downgraded in importance. Self-management skills would come top of my wish list and homework is a perfect vehicle for that. With regard to homework interfering with the need for rest and relaxation after the school day, careful coordination by schools of homework loading in various subjects should avoid unnecessary stress and ensure balance and actually help school managers monitor the teaching and learning more effectively.

Back as far as 1998, the BBC news was reporting that the government will announce that homework clubs are to be set up in at least 6,000 schools, funded by £200m from the National Lottery. So to hear this term that schools have a great new idea to set up supervised after school homework provision totally confirms the old saying “what goes around comes around”. Certainly pushing up GCSE grades in my own experience necessitated organising voluntary study centres in school after classes had ended in May to rescue pupils from the lonely struggle with examination revision at home alone. We are all aware these days of the difficulty of asking teachers to do more hours and/or affording paying for such provision. There is a good idea here which could work with a bit of ingenuity and good will.

The other education story hitting the headlines this term was about school uniform. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-37298505.

The Head teacher of Hartsdown Academy in Margate, Matthew Tate made the news by sending 50 pupils home for not wearing the correct uniform. He maintains, as would many school leaders here, that uniforms lead to better behaviour and grades. Reasons for turning children away from classes included "inappropriate" shoes and "skin-tight" jeans and skirts. A parent who objected to the school actions said when interviewed that: "Mr Tate has definitely set off on the wrong foot and the general feeling he has created is a very hostile one." I will be putting a formal complaint in and urge all the other parents to do the same."

Mr Tate said Hartsdown had been underperforming and he was determined to raise expectations and standards." A small minority of parents were not happy but we have had emails and phone calls from other parents to express their support and they said this is a good thing, that it is good to set standards and they want the best for the children," he said. "I have had feedback from teachers that behaviour was much better... so a small amount of time out of school is a price worth paying."

Here in Northern Ireland the local media predictably jumped up and down with delight at having a story to emulate and promptly organised phone in interviews with parents who resented their children’s individuality being compromised by uniform requirements. Was it really necessary they asked for pupils to be regimented into compliant clones and does lurid hair colour really interfere with effective learning?

Again those of us who were pupils ourselves in the 1960s and 70s remember the issues around long hair for boys and skirt lengths for girls and the conflict with school dress code policies for our own generation.

School leaders can now as then, find themselves in tight spots over these issues which, taken out of context, can make the school policy seem ridiculous and archaic. On the one hand, teachers demand that the school defend standards and ensure pupil compliance to school policies while parents, no doubt reacting to complaints from their children, question the fairness of possible punitive sanctions.

President Clinton provided momentum to the school uniform movement in the USA when he said in his 1996 State of the Union speech, “If it means teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.”
http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/school-uniforms/.

The arguments for and against school uniform are well rehearsed here in Northern Ireland and in the main uniforms are accepted as a good and positive element of school life. In relation to wider issues of dress code and appearance, however, we may well have trouble ahead as the example below from a school in Tulsa, Oklahoma demonstrates;

The dress code prohibits:

  • Decorations (including tattoos) that are symbols, mottoes, words or acronyms that convey crude, vulgar, profane, violent, gang-related, sexually explicit or suggestive messages
  • Large or baggy clothes (this prohibition can be used to keep students from excessive “sagging”)
  • Holes in clothes
  • Scarves, curlers, bandanas or sweatbands inside of school buildings (exceptions are made for religious attire)
  • Visible undergarments
  • Strapless garments
  • Bare midriffs, immodestly low-cut necklines or bare backs
  • Tights, leggings, bike shorts, swim suits or pyjamas as outerwear
  • Visible piercings, except in the ear
  • Dog collars, tongue rings and studs, wallet chains, large hair picks, or chains that connect one part of the body to another.

Is this the future for us in schools or will common sense and general parental appreciation for the sound judgement and genuine concern of teachers for the welfare of our young people prevail as it usually does now?

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This article is correct at 13/10/2016
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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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