Homework: To set or not to set... - 13 Sep 2012


While one union has branded homework a waste of time, many others argue the benefits. With government guidelines scrapped, Dorothy Lepkowska looks at the pros and cons of setting homework


The issue of homework remains a tricky one for schools. Set it and there is a chance it won’t get done. Don’t bother and parents will demand to know why.

Then there are the questions of how much to set, when to set it and what the expectations should be of pupils. Increasingly, it seems, there is debate in primary schools about whether homework should be given at all.

With government guidelines on how much homework pupils should expect now scrapped, it has become a matter for individual schools to decide. This is not necessarily an easy decision to make. Research into the effectiveness and validity of homework is divided, and tends to follow the trends of received wisdom at any particular time.

Under guidelines laid down by the previous Labour government, children aged five to seven were to be set an hour a week, rising to half-an-hour a night for seven to 11-year-olds. Critics have always maintained that too much homework, set in the wrong way could result in children switching off from learning, while for teachers it creates obvious workload issues.

One of the most recent studies on the subject, carried out for the Department for Education, of more than 3,000 pupils over a 15-year period, found that time spent on homework reflected how much pupils were expected to do, as well as their enjoyment of the subjects.

Pat Sammons, professor of education at the University of Oxford, who was one of the academics involved in the study, found that one of the reasons pupils from some ethnic backgrounds, such as Chinese and Indian, performed well at school was because they put more into their homework. So success was found in effort as well as ability.

The report, which was jointly conducted by Oxford, and the University of London’s Institute of Education and Birkbeck College, controlled for social class and whether pupils had a quiet place to work, but still found there were some benefits.

Researchers discovered that children who did well from disadvantaged backgrounds were supported by parents who valued learning and encouraged extra-curricular activities.

However, the research is at odds with some earlier studies. Research from the Institute of Education carried out several years ago by Professor Susan Hallam, found that homework caused friction at home.

Her analysis, which examined 75 years’ worth of studies into homework, concluded that schools needed to focus more on the purpose and quality of homework, and not the amount. She also made a case that it should be completed in homework clubs, rather than at home where conditions were not always conducive to learning.

The study states: “Homework can cause anxiety, boredom fatigue and emotional exhaustion in children, who resent the encroachment on their free time, even though they think homework helps them do well at school.”

Researchers in the United States, meanwhile, where a similar debate ensues about homework, have found that parental involvement was, in the main, beneficial for students. However, too much help from mothers and fathers can lead to any benefits of home study being lost because it was not the children doing the work.

The findings have some resonance with Heulwen Rees, assistant head of a junior school in London. She said many parents wanted to see homework set every day because they saw that as vital to their children’s academic success. More often than not, she said, these were immigrant families who wanted their children to achieve more than they had.

“As a teacher I have often felt constrained by a school’s homework policy,” she said. “I stepped outside this by often setting specific homework for a specific child who had a specific problem and needed consolidation, particularly in maths.

“The best advice I was given was to set homework that didn’t need to be marked. I would often give pupils research tasks to do ready for the next history, science or geography lesson. I also set work that could be displayed so parents were happy that their child’s effort was on show to everyone.

“Personally I feel we shouldn’t be setting too much homework and that children should be allowed just to be children. If they are involved in extra-curricular activities such as sports clubs, or learning an instrument or girl guides or scouts, when are they supposed to do it?”

Anna Balson, head of Mear Green Primary, in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, said the current school policy on homework was that it was set every Wednesday and was expected to be returned the following Monday giving parents several days, including the weekend, to supervise their children if required.

Key stage 2 pupils could expect to get around one hour a week, falling to about 30 minutes for younger pupils. Every child was also expected to read at home every day.

“Usually homework revolves around a theme that is being taught in lessons, or it may focus on aspects of numeracy and literacy,” she said. “It really depends what theme we are focusing on at any given time. Where possible we also try to set homework that involves research in preparation of a lesson on a certain topic or theme.

“However, we find that despite the fact there is an expectation by parents that we will set their children tasks to do at home, it is often not completed, or clearly done in a rushed fashion on the Sunday evening. Trying to prepare pupils in advance clearly does not work in that instance and it is where the policy falls down.”

Ms Bolson added that the school was, to some extent, succumbing to parental pressures as it was expected the school would set work. “The problem is that when they get it home they can’t be bothered to do it.

“My own preference would be to have no homework at all, but instead to ask parents to give their children certain experiences, such as taking them to a museum or doing something adventurous outdoors. Or if, for example, we’re doing a topic on castles to take them to one and perhaps write about it, though this would not be compulsory.

“In this way, children also learn something about self-motivation. As far as I’m concerned weekends should be family time and not for homework but because it’s mentioned in the new Ofsted inspections framework then we feel we have to set it.” While homework may be controversial, experts at least agree on the value of parents taking an interest in their children’s learning.

Results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Pisa study, which compares school systems around the world, found a strong correlation between children’s reading performance at 15, and home activities such as discussing politics, talking about books or films and eating meals together as a family.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers at its annual conference in 2009 voted in favour of abolishing homework for primary school pupils, saying it was “a waste of children’s time”. The debate has even attracted celebrity involvement. Kirstie Allsopp, the television presenter who has campaigned against homework for primary school children, described it as a “constant battle that gets in the way of all the real ways kids learn. Going to the park. Reading together. Even just talking and interacting with the rest of the family”.

Chris Chivers, a former primary teacher and headteacher who is now working as an education consultant, said there was little point in setting homework which would not be marked or play any part in future learning.

“Traditionally, homework set in primary schools has included learning multiplication tables, spelling and reading to an adult,” he said. “Worksheets are sometimes sent home with an activity following a lesson. Homework is usually given on a specific day each week, communicated to parents beforehand, so becomes a part of the weekly routine.”

Mr Chivers added that it was debatable whether the activity was valued and supported in every household. Intervention, interest and investment of time by “a significant adult” determines whether the activities will be accomplished and have a positive impact on learning.

“In my experience, the best practices are promoted ahead of time,” he said. “Parents are well prepared for the home activity event, either by word of mouth, through the children or pre-empted by a half termly newsletter detailing what to expect, with weekly follow up as necessary. Schools with different heritage languages make provision for parents to know what to expect.

“Every teacher should have in mind the potential for activity to be undertaken at home which can add value to class time. Oracy and articulacy should be enhanced by any home activity, as they all should be capable of being discussed.”

A spokesman for the Department for Education said homework was “part and parcel of a good education – along with high quality teaching and strong discipline”. He added: “We trust headteachers 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.”

• Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

Read the old homework guidelines here.