Homework is a word that can spark despair and ire in children, parents and even teachers!
Whilst there is evidence that homework can be useful at secondary school - for example for consolidating learning or revising for exams - there is less evidence that this is useful for children in the primary or early years phases.
In 1998, David Blunkett, the then education secretary, suggested primary children should spend 30 minutes a day on homework, with early years pupils doing 20 minutes. Ofsted set guidelines in 1999 but these were scrapped in 2012, with headteachers being told to set their own policies.
Two decades later, Damien Hinds stated that “We trust individual school headteachers to decide what their policy on homework will be, and what happens if pupils don’t do what’s set.”
So, what should schools do? Is it worth setting homework? And what are the benefits?
If homework is to be effective, we need to have a clear idea of its purpose. The Education Endowment Foundation in 2021 suggested that common homework activities in primary schools are “reading or practising spelling and number facts, but may also include more extended activities to develop inquiry skills or more directed and focused work such as revision for tests”. Vatterott (2010) suggested that homework should have meaning, should not take a disproportionate amount of time, should have some element of choice and be possible to complete, as well as being motivating.
Homework is also seen as a link between home and school, encouraging parents to play an active role in their children’s education. But while 64% of parents think homework is helpful, a third felt it was not - with many saying homework was a huge cause of stress for the whole family.
Worldwide, most of the meta-studies on homework indicate that there is little or no positive benefit on children’s academic achievement and a central reason for this tends to be the inability of children to complete this homework without the support provided by teachers and the school. Some studies suggested primary pupils lack the independent study skills and the ability to stay focused on the work. Despite this, they recommended doing some homework as this develops habits that will be useful later.
It might be that the tasks often set for primary pupils (usually reading and basic numeracy skills) are harder to measure academically, so there might still be other benefits around engagement, developing responsibility and resilience.
Parents are generally positive about homework and a common task is reading with children. Whilst there is some evidence of positive impact, as well as enjoyment, the quality of interaction may be more important than the quantity. There may also be a negative impact of homework if parents incur unrealistic expectations, apply pressure or use approaches counter to the school’s methods. There are also indicators that homework may magnify differences between high and low-achieving pupils because high achievers from economically privileged backgrounds may have greater parental support for homework, including more educated assistance, higher expectations and better settings and resources.
Given the mixed messaging, what is the right approach for your pupils?
Any school activity should start with questions of purpose. If the purpose of homework is to develop the home-school relationship, and give parents a greater stake in the schooling of their children, then this might be a positive thing. But it seems that for this to be positive it must be linked, at least in the primary sector, to metrics above and beyond improving test scores or school performance metrics. Rather, any ‘work at home’ must be something that develops confidence, intent and engagement in the process of schooling for both children and parents, and there must be a degree of collaboration not imposition.
For the youngest children anything that takes time away from developmental play is a bad thing. The Vatterott principles might be a good place for teachers to start, especially sharing objectives with pupils and making sure that there is a sense of ownership and meaning.
Phil Harris is Lecturer and Researcher in Education at the University of Hull