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Is it time to scrap homework?

news | Published in TES magazine on 15 February, 2013 | By: Irena Barker

Homework has long been a bone of contention. Its detractors argue that it widens the achievement gap and now France is looking to ban it. But is it time we followed suit?

Homework is a nightly curse in thousands of homes and a cause of nerve trouble, sleeplessness and family friction.”

This complaint - from TES back in 1929 - could easily have come from a modern anti-homework crusader, furious at the imposition of schoolwork on home life.

It is a clear illustration of how homework has remained a political and emotive issue for well over a century.

To some, it is an essential part of school life that ensures exam success and the country’s economic standing in the world. To others, it is a burden that affects the health of children, damages family life and results in pupils from poor backgrounds falling behind.

In Britain, campaigners first raised concerns about the negative effects of too much homework in the late 19th century, when schools started setting more of it to ensure pupils’ success in public exams. These days, as homework becomes increasingly formalised, in the primary sector in particular, the debate shows no sign of receding.

Recent critics include television presenter Kirstie Allsopp, who told The Sunday Telegraph that the burden on parents to supervise homework was too great. Some homework had become almost “adversarial”, she said.

The Parents Outloud charity has called for schools to scrap formal homework entirely, warning that it can lead to rebellion and burnout. Its director Margaret Morrissey has called the setting of holiday projects an “unforgivable” imposition on free time.

Perhaps the event that brought the debate into sharpest focus was in France in October, when president Francois Hollande declared an end to homework in primary schools. Independent learning, he said, should take place at the end of the school day on school premises. Such a move, he said, would even out social inequalities.

“An education programme is, by definition, a societal programme. Work should be done at school rather than at home,” he pronounced.

Scrapping homework

Monsieur le President is not alone in Europe. Denmark has piloted “homework-free” schools, resulting in a reported fall in dropout rates and rise in overall grades.

At the other end of the spectrum, South Korean schoolchildren do hours of extra study at home and in private crammers, and achieve some of the highest maths, science and reading scores in the developed world. The country also has the highest youth suicide rate, although it is unclear if the two factors are related.

Clearly, views differ the world over. But is homework really a waste of time that should be consigned to the scholastic scrapheap along with caning and doffing one’s cap to the headmaster’s wife?

The most recent trend towards the formalisation of primary homework in this country began in 1988 with the introduction of the national curriculum. But it became embedded in 1998, when the education secretary at the time, David Blunkett, announced guidelines for primary and secondary schools, and support was provided for the introduction of homework clubs.

The guidelines - scrapped last year by Michael Gove - suggested that pupils as young as four should be doing around one hour a week, stretching to 30 minutes a day for pupils in Years 5 and 6. They recommended pupils in the first year of secondary should be doing up to 90 minutes a night, increasing to up to two and a half hours a night for those in the GCSE years.

Mr Blunkett was concerned that a 1995 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 43 per cent of 10-year-olds were given no regular homework. Meanwhile, more than 50 per cent watched more than three hours of television a day, he said at the time.

“Homework is an essential part of education,” he said at the time. “All the evidence suggests that homework makes an important contribution to the progress and achievement of children at school.”

And it didn’t take long for primaries to turn things around. In her 2004 book Homework: The Evidence, Professor Susan Hallam says that in 1997, 64 per cent of primaries had a homework policy. Only two years later, 90 per cent had policies, including 100 per cent of junior and 75 per cent of infant schools.

Indeed, in the current climate of increasing Ofsted scrutiny, league table competition and forced academy conversions for underperforming schools, homework seems to be all the rage. It is, to most people’s minds, part of the general trend towards stricter uniforms, zero-tolerance behaviour policies and house systems.

All the major academy chains TES spoke to stressed the importance of homework at both primary and secondary level, especially for children from deprived areas. Gove may have scrapped the guidelines as part of an overarching plan to “free up” headteachers, but there is no danger that schools will be dropping it.

But is this trend towards setting more homework, especially in primary schools, based on academic evidence? Setting aside the potential benefits of encouraging independent learning or increasing parental engagement with school, does it actually improve attainment?

The research is, at best, mixed. In Hallam’s review of research into the issue, she concluded that at secondary level there was “a positive but low correlation” between doing homework and improved attainment. But she also warned that the relationship between the amount of homework done and attainment was not linear.

“More homework doesn’t mean better. There comes a point where it no longer has a benefit,” the University of London Institute of Education academic told TES.

She also found that the most recent studies into homework and achievement concluded that it was difficult to separate the effect of homework on attainment from other factors, such as home and family background.

Other evidence for a causal link has come from the government-funded Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education project, which showed a marked difference in attainment between 14-year-olds doing two to three hours’ homework and similar pupils doing none. The pupils who did homework were found to be nearly one national curriculum level higher in maths, three-quarters of a level higher in science and more than half a level higher in English at key stage 3.

The study found that the effects of large amounts of homework were bigger than the effects of other factors such as gender, free-school-meal status and mother’s qualifications.

Harris Cooper, professor of social psychology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, also conducted reviews of homework research in the US. In an article summarising his findings, he concludes: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement was found to be positive and was generally statistically different from zero.

“To conclude on the basis of the evidence in hand that doing homework can cause improved academic achievement would not be imprudent.”

However, his work also concluded that while homework for young children could improve scores in tests involving simple mathematical skills, “the homework/achievement link on broader measures of achievement appears to be weak”.

A ‘tool in the armoury’

So with this morass of conflicting evidence, what are schools to do? Should they simply see homework as a means of raising raw attainment scores? A public-relations tool to convince parents that they are a “good” and “rigorous” school? Or a way of training pupils in independent learning?

At Ark Schools, which runs nine primary academies, three of which are part of all-through schools, homework is viewed as a vital means of raising standards. Just because many pupils arrive in school with low attainment levels doesn’t mean they escape homework. If anything, the philosophy is that they should do more to catch up.

The chain’s Lesley Smith says homework was regarded as one of the “tools in the armoury” for a school working in an underprivileged area.

“On average we have the lowest prior attainment of any of the academy chains so children have to progress further than other kids: they have a longer journey to travel from 11 to 16,” she says.

“Homework to embed what children have learned in lessons and a consistent policy on homework is a tool in your armoury alongside excellent teaching and well-planned lessons.”

Smith is keen to stress that homework must always be purposeful and not be seen as a punishment or an afterthought.

“Homework is very carefully planned, with the same rigour as lesson planning,” she says. “If it is seen as a chore or a punishment or it isn’t marked or the pupils don’t think they are getting anything out of it, it is of no use.

“You can make homework really interesting using games and competitions and kids can be very enthusiastic,” she adds.

Sir Robin Bosher, a former primary head and now primary director for the Harris Federation of academies, says the chain operates on the premise that “homework is a good thing”.

Even in primary, he says, homework plays a role in raising the ambitions of pupils in areas of high deprivation.

“It can be very motivating and develop those positive beliefs about achievement and raise aspirations,” he says.

To the anti-homework brigade, this is a nebulous argument, but Bosher explains: “It’s all about feedback and the role it has in building a relationship between the pupil and the teacher.

“When you achieve something independently in your own time, the feedback you get from the teacher has a higher value. The acknowledgement from the teacher can raise your self-esteem.”

However, Bosher is anxious that pupils are not unfairly disadvantaged if their parents are less able to help them with their homework or if pupils do not have a quiet, appropriate place to study.

To overcome this issue, the parents of Reception and Year 1 pupils are invited to stay five minutes longer at Harris primaries, twice a week, when they drop their children off in the morning. They are invited to sit and read with their children, and teachers offer advice on how to help them help their children progress.

“We will say how to share a book, this is where you would correct an error, this is where you wouldn’t… so parents feel confident to hear their children read. Three-quarters of our parents stay,” Bosher says.

The school also operates workshops during the last 30 minutes of the school day, in which teachers explain to parents how concepts such as multiplication or long division are taught. Working parents are offered sessions at more convenient times once a term, and booklets of advice on how to support children with their homework are also sent home. A homework club is offered at the school, where pupils have access to staff and IT facilities.

But Bosher points out that overloading children with homework and other activities is something to avoid: “I don’t think it’s useful for a child to go from one class to another, to homework, to piano practice, like a hamster in a wheel.”

Social inequalities

So, schools may have slightly different approaches but they almost universally seem to believe that homework has a purpose. There are drawbacks, however.

One of the main concerns - as highlighted by Hollande - is that homework ingrains social inequalities between pupils: clever, motivated children in higher sets or at better schools tend to be given more homework, while less able, less motivated pupils are given less. The result is a further widening of the attainment gap.

More advantaged children are also more likely to have a quiet place to study at home, with access to the internet, again giving them the chance to pull ahead.

At Malsis School, an independent preparatory school in Yorkshire, there were no such concerns about deprivation, but the institution has dropped homework to even out inequalities between its boarding and day pupils. Instead, pupils complete their “prep” during an extended school day, which ends at 6.15pm for older pupils.

There is evidence that this model may quietly be taking hold in parts of the state sector. The founders of Holyport College, Berkshire, a new, state-funded free school sponsored by Eton College, said last week that all pupils, boarding and day, will have to complete all their homework on site.

“Parental help can be a problem. If you want your students to do an unsupported English comprehension paper, you don’t want their parents to do it,” Malsis head Marcus Peel says.

“By having everyone complete their homework in the same circumstances, you are putting everyone on a level pegging.”

Peel says that the majority of parents are relieved not to have to worry about enforcing homework during the working week. This encroachment on family life is one of the bugbears of anti-homework campaigners.

“Homework hits the intersection between the state and the family. It can be a battlefield at home,” Hallam says.

Parents Outloud’s Morrissey also believes too much homework can be damaging. “You spend all day at school five days a week and that should be sufficient,” she says. “Taking home a bit of reading or a little bit of internet research is fine, but not proper written work.”

She argues that there is a risk of older children “rebelling and becoming dropouts” because of regular nightly homework. “With the younger ones,” says Morrissey, who has seen four-year-olds being sent home with written work, “there is the big issue of whether the child has actually done the work themselves.

“Parents who see their child struggling are going to want to help them with the right answer.”

She concedes that some parents might be part of the problem, as they often judge the quality of the school on the amount of homework set.

“It would be very interesting to see if schools were prepared to scrap homework for a couple of terms to see how much of a difference it actually made,” she adds.

So as the debate rumbles on, what is the future for homework? In fact, there may be a middle ground developing. Many educationalists have indicated that technology might be quietly transforming the type of work that is set and the willingness of pupils to complete tasks at home. It may also relieve teachers of marking while still allowing them to analyse how well their pupils are doing.

SAM Learning, for example, is an online service offering thousands of exercises for pupils to complete independently. It was initially set up to help pupils revise for exams but has since been rolled out in primary schools.

Teachers set tasks online, which pupils complete at home, receiving their grades instantly with no marking from the teacher. Staff can see how many tries it took pupils to get the correct answer and adapt their teaching accordingly.

There is also a social networking aspect: pupils can log on together from their homes and have competitions to complete the tasks the quickest, for example.

Other futuristic approaches include “flipped learning” and “blended learning”: pupils’ homework consists of using technology to listen to or watch a “lesson” online, which is then followed up with constructive work in the classroom. The aim is to give teachers more time to interact with pupils face to face rather than “lecturing”.

Homework is entrenched in our culture, and teachers, parents and pupils all expect it to cast a shadow across their evenings for the immediate future. But the digital revolution means that it is almost certain to evolve and expand into new territory over the coming years. It’s just possible that it may be the case that homework (as we know it) is dead; long live homework.

 

Photo credit: Getty


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Comment (11)

  • Homework must have a purpose and a value. I sat through a head´s speech about the value of homework every night adding up to so many days extra education; watching the students reaction (discreet w**ker signs) then talking to them afterwards showed their derision for extra days. "It´s quality that matters sir, innit?"
    Youngsters deserve free time to let off steam and just relax. The French idea of the independent learning (with guidance/help when needed) at the end of the day (1 hour max) is perfect.

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    14:40
    16 February, 2013

    psm66

  • Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    19:30
    18 February, 2013

    james333

  • I have been a teacher for 20 years and I can with all reason and objectivity argue that homework is a complete waste of time . ABolish it now!!!!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    19:32
    18 February, 2013

    james333

  • I teach in a school for dyslexic pupils and we have reduced homework to reading, some spelling and a maths online program. There are times when revision is required.
    My question is if a pupil can do the work independently in class why are they doing it again at home, and if they cannot do independently why are they doing it at home without support?

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    20:56
    18 February, 2013

    awar

  • I have spent (and am still there) 42 very successful years at the 'chalk face' of teaching.

    Please check out my article 'Homework - Education's Biggest Scam' at http://alturl.com/7dnef

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    14:48
    19 February, 2013

    teknojimmy

  • Homework is generally a waste of time, and is driven by the belief that better results can be achieved by cramming more and more into children. What actually happens is that the children who are uninterested or bored with the subject matter will harden their attitudes against the subject and be even more resistant to being taught, and those who enjoy and understand the subject will come to resent the waste of time doing make-work that adds nothing extra to their knowledge.

    Far better to avoid this and give children the opportunity and incentive to learn something of interest to them in the time available. Some will still choose to study the TV or a computer game, but they're the ones who most likely wouldn't have made an effort on the homework anyway. Even with this group, there's a net gain because they haven't been put off the subject for life.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    15:11
    20 February, 2013

    Thienz

  • I think homework has helped me. It taught me to be disciplined and independant in getting my work done and using my time productively at home, without the gaze of the teacher. I can't think of a time when I haven't had to do homework, at any stage of my education, or working life for that matter. Even now, my student retail job requires that I compete 'homework' training booklets at home, in my own time. When I become a teacher, I'll have to do ALOT of work and marking at home. I see it as part and parcel of working life, then , now and in the future. Probably not a bad thing that I've been practising for the last twenty years, then, surely?

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    9:41
    21 February, 2013

    primaryhistorian

  • it is unbelievable that here in England homework don't actually exist...
    In class you cannot reinforce your memory... you cannot fix in your mind those concepts. When you are alone at home, struggling by yourself to find a solution to the exercise, you really become indipendent...
    In Italy we, as students, spend 3 or 4 hours per day. it's tough, I know, but only in this way school can be school and not an amusement park...

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    16:56
    21 February, 2013

    mickypgce

  • I agree with primaryhistorian and mickypgce. I too went to school in another country and had homework throughout the school life. It helped me massively to learn to work independently- skills really get consolidated with a bit of reminding at home of what happened in that fleeting 40-50mins of a lesson in a week. I learnt research skills and how to really keep at something since 10 years old when part of our homework was to write essays on things we discussed at school. There were subjects which I hated ( like chemistry, say) and cheated the homework by buddying someone more able (and industrious) and copying their homework before next class at school. But even then, when I didn't find alternative ways, I was stuck to working out things my myself , even though I didn't like it, it forced me to at least read the best I could the manuals and work out what happened in class. How can that be bad??

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    6:56
    18 April, 2013

    Shutterfly Fly

  • I agree with primaryhistorian and mickypgce. I too went to school in another country and had homework throughout the school life. It helped me massively to learn to work independently- skills really get consolidated with a bit of reminding at home of what happened in that fleeting 40-50mins of a lesson in a week. I learnt research skills and how to really keep at something since 10 years old when part of our homework was to write essays on things we discussed at school. There were subjects which I hated ( like chemistry, say) and cheated the homework by buddying someone more able (and industrious) and copying their homework before next class at school. But even then, when I didn't find alternative ways, I was stuck to working out things my myself , even though I didn't like it, it forced me to at least read the best I could the manuals and work out what happened in class. How can that be bad??

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    16:11
    18 April, 2013

    Shutterfly Fly

  • I strongly believe that homework is unjustifiable for the reasons I quote below. There is a large minority or even a majority that feel the same, but no one seems to want to rock the school boat. We need to change people's consciousness so that homework becomes as anti-social as smoking is these days. Somehow those of us who feel this strongly need to urgently start speaking collectively, write to mps, high profile people, schools, headteachers etc and start making our voice heard. Each year we have gone into school and reminded them that homework is not compulsory, home school agreements do not legally have to be signed and that while I will support my child if they wish to do set homework, I do not expect them to face punishment if it is not done. I urge everyone who feels like this to do similar. At the very least it may eventually indicate how many people feel this way.

    Sends the wrong message re: Work/Life balance -

    Most are concerned that this country prioritises work above all other aspects of life – Work/life balance misadjustment is costing us in both money and quality of life. - Yet right from the age of 5, we are telling our children that not only is it acceptable to take work home, it is mandatory.

    It removes the segregation between work and pleasure - It makes many feel guilty about not taking work home, and perpetuates the spiral of work taking full precedence over personal and family life.

    Disruption of Family and Personal Time - It dictates how we should spend our time with our children and as a family - It reduces the spontaneity of spending time as a family. - It reduces the time available for children to pursue those interests that they want to discover. - It reduces time to learn for themselves outside of a pre-determined curriculum, and for us as a family to determine a learning agenda. - It leads to stress, fear and unhappiness if homework either wasn’t done or couldn’t be - That unhappiness leads to friction within families - Can lead to sleep deprivation, either due to actually doing homework or worrying about it. - Can reduce the activity levels of children, preventing them from more active activities when doing homework. - Increases stress levels in children - Result in drained, tired children – everyone needs time to refresh themselves – That time is the time that they are not at school or work.

    Dissuades Children from Learning for fun - A 2006 Scholastic/Yankelovich study found that reading for pleasure is a better indicator of test scores than homework, but that reading for pleasure decreases sharply after the age of eight. The study found that the largest reason for this was due to homework.

    Rude, Inconsiderate and impolite - I consider the presumption that a school can take up my family’s time outside of the hours prescribed to it as plain rudeness. - I think it unlikely that the school would take kindly to my setting my children things to do during lessons. - Yet that is exactly what homework does to time outside of school. If a school believes that it can determine what my family does in its own time, then why shouldn’t I specify what my children do for a period of time in each lesson? Because, as I would agree, it would be impolite and inconsiderate!

    Studies indicate limited or no use in primary schools and only some use in secondary - 2006 Synthesis of research – Found no correlation between homework and achievement in Primary, limited in Secondary (but only up to a period of 1 hour) - US Cross Cultural analysis found that low-homework setting countries consistently achieve better than higher homework setting countries such as UK and US. - Some schools are eliminating homework completely (e.g. Nottingham East Academy). Tiffin School – “Something’s not right when a boy can’t watch a nature documentary because he’s busy doing maths”. - School provides a standardised place for formal learning – Home does not – Home life can be noisy, distracting, unsettling etc. - Often homework is given because “parents expect it”. As Peter Stanford from the Independent says “Teachers set homework in the belief that it pleases parents. Parents don’t disabuse them of this, even when it is exhausting their child, because they don’t want him or her to be singled out or seen as failing.” — Richard Rowe, head of Holy Trinity School at Guildford, Surrey, said he would happily vote to abolish homework but had been unable to persuade parents.”I genuinely think that if children of primary age are taught well and do a good day’s work, there should be no need for homework,” he said. “They should be allowed to have a childhood.” (Times educational Supplement 14/3/2008) —-Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation for Parent Teacher Associations, said: “Schools need to explain to parents that they want their pupils to be fresh and excited in class. “Younger children go to school quite early and, if their parents work, don’t get home till 6pm. To have homework on top of that just risks burnout.” (Times educational Supplement 14/3/2008) - Even teachers and their union dispute the use of homework – . Professor Dylan Wiliam of the Institute of Education in London, “Research shows homework does not make much of a difference” — ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) in 2008 called for an outright ban on primary school homework saying that it was “counter-productive” (+ strict limits on secondary school homework). - See more at: http://www.parentsoutloud.com/end-homework/#sthash.gtA7uhMf.dpuf

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    23:25
    17 September, 2013

    kbromfield

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