Spotlight on the NUT donation: “Homework. A Memorandum issued by the National Union of Teachers on Educational Pamphlet No. 110 of the Board of Education”

As you may already be aware, in late 2016 we received a wonderful donation from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) which included 380 pamphlet boxes containing material published by the NUT itself and many other organisations operating in the areas of education, children and families.

We have checked and sorted these publications, discovering many interesting items during the process. In February 2018 we created a LibGuide and also published a series of blog posts looking in more detail at a selection of these NUT resources.  The focus of this blog is several documents from the collection concerned with the perennially thorny subject of ‘Homework’.

A Memorandum issued by The National Union of Teachers on Educational Pamphlet No. 110 of the Board of Education was issued in October 1937. The aforementioned pamphlet was a Report published in May 1937 after three years of investigation into the subject of ‘Homework’. The job of gathering evidence was given to inspectors in England and Wales as an adjunct to their usual regular visits to schools. The report covered elementary, secondary and vocational schools.

Of particular interest to the modern reader is perhaps the foremost point made in relation to elementary or junior schools that

“The setting of lessons to be done at home has at no time been regarded as part of compulsory education”

The hours of schooling had been set to take into consideration the claims of children’s home lives. Also the curriculum did not make homework necessary. Why then was homework, at the instigation of staff or in answer to demands by parents, being set at all? As stated in the Memorandum the answer most commonly given was “a desire to assist the pupil to pass the Entrance Examination to the Secondary School at the age of 11+.    

Why this examination has assumed such importance can be partly understood by the fact that “the standing and reputation of a school is, in some areas, dependent upon the success of its pupils in the Secondary Schools’ Entrance Examination”. A school’s successes and failures are often all too apparent because the local press still publish the examination results giving the names of schools and pupils. The general public and even Local Education Authorities can use these results to judge the merits of the education offered by different schools. It is the opinion of the NUT that in reality there may be many factors, including differences in the ability and intelligence of pupils in different schools, which influence the success or failure of candidates. Teachers can therefore feel under pressure to take action, including setting homework, to ensure that their pupils pass the examination. It is also understandable that parents are eager for their children to have access to University and many of the professions which require a good secondary education. Homework can then come to be seen as a way of preparing for the important 11+ exam.

The NUT agreed with the recommendation given in the Report that “no homework should be set in children under twelve”. Furthermore, the Union wanted an alternative to the 11+ exam to be found. It also felt that lists of successful candidates should not be published as they could lead to schools working only towards success in the exam.

A second document from the NUT in 1955, Statement by the Executive of the Union on Homework in the Primary School, makes it clear that despite the passing of the Education Act of 1944 there continued to be demands made on primary school age children to undertake homework. Although the number of grammar school places had increased it was not at a uniform rate throughout the country. Parents were therefore still demanding that schools set homework in the belief that it would increase their children’s chances of success.20190712_094625

Once again the Union made it clear that they still did not regard “the setting of lessons to be done at home” as part of the education of junior school pupils. However the Union also thought that teachers should encourage those pupils who wanted to follow up a school project or lesson at home. It was acknowledged that children might not have access to suitable reading material at home. It was therefore important for primary schools to have well stocked libraries and to encourage children to use their local public library.

Members of other education unions have also been interested in the Homework debate as evidenced by the Association of Assistant Mistresses’ (AAM) 1974 discussion document. AAM made the point that traditionally compulsory homework had been associated with grammar schools rather than secondary modern schools.

“There has therefore grown up in the mind of the public a false correlation between homework and intelligence, and even between homework and social status”. 

Eventually the government stepped in and in 1998 Labour’s guidelines recommended an hour a week for five to seven-year-olds, gradually rising to 2.5 hours per night for pupils aged between 14 and 16. But then in 2012 the Conservatives decided that whilst homework was part of a good education, it should be up to head teachers to set their own homework policy because they knew what would be most suitable for their own pupils. In 2018 Damian Hinds (Secretary of State for Education) stated that

Just to be clear: schools are not obliged to set homework, and some don’t. But when schools do set homework, children do need to do it. We trust individual school head teachers to decide what their policy on homework will be, and what happens if pupils don’t do what’s set.

Books available in the library including Homework: the evidence by Susan Hallam (2004) and Homework for learning: 300 practical strategies by Gerry Czerniawski and Warren Kidd (2013), along with the 2019 journal article by Jane Medwell and David Wray and newspaper articles are all evidence that homework is still a much debated topic by teachers and parents alike.

With regards to the NUT donated items, the scale of the donation means that these have not yet been catalogued and that is the next stage in this exciting project. In the meantime, please visit our LibGuide, which includes information on the access arrangements that we have in place for these fascinating items.

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