t’s Sunday night and it's chaos. Your youngest forgot to mention their spelling test on Tuesday. Your eldest hasn’t finished their report on the Second World War — and it’s due tomorrow.
As you enter a screaming match and then attempt to scramble something together, you can’t help but wonder: is homework really worth it?
You’re not alone. More than a third of parents don’t believe their primary school-aged child should be doing homework, according to the 2017 Ofsted Parents Panel Annual Report. And Telegraph columnist Judith Woods argues that homework puts families under undue stress.
But does it actually help? Are the family rows worth it because it helps children get ahead? We asked education experts to find out whether homework has merit.
As well as helping to consolidate what a child has learnt in class, homework is “part and parcel of developing independent learning,” according to Edward Balfour, headteacher at Beechwood Park School.
By setting challenging work that will “gently push children out of their comfort zone”, you prepare them for the future, as this “helps towards developing independence and confidence in young children in preparation for adulthood”.
While often considered a teacher-led activity, Balfour adds that “homework can be a liberation of pupils” as it allows them to “demonstrate their flair and their ingenuity, their creativity and their character”.
Indeed, there has been a shift away from typical homework assignments in early education, according to Christopher King, chief executive of The Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS). “I think that the more enlightened schools are moving away from homework in the traditional form, which often one felt was actually created for parents rather than the child, to something which is more effective — such as regular reading.”
One such primary school that has implemented this new style of homework is Littletown Primary Academy in Honiton, which changed its homework policy last year. Now, instead of formal English and maths homework, children are expected to do 20 minutes of reading each evening and are given a list of optional activities each term, related to a topic they are studying.
This more laid-back approach has encouraged pupils’ independent learning, according to the school’s headteacher David Perkins. “It transfers the ownership back to the child and that’s a really powerful thing to do.”.
Impact on lessons
For homework to be effective, it has to cater to all the pupils in the classroom. The “skilled teacher” will be able to “provide a task which has a number of different approaches to it, which will suit different learners,” Balfour says.
This is easier said than done, according to Perkins — especially if there is a range of abilities in the classroom. “To actually get it spot-on for each child is an inordinate amount of workload, and I’d rather have my teachers applying that focus somewhere else.”
Setting and marking homework can put extra pressure on teachers and “at its worst extremes, it can actually deflect from the preparation of more imaginative lessons that engage the children in the classroom,” according to King.
“What I think should be banned is setting homework for homework’s sake,” King says, as this is “not helpful and does bring stress to the family”.
Schools need to be aware of the impact their homework has on a child’s home life, Perkins agrees. “I think family time is compact these days more than ever, and as a school we are impinging on that whenever we ask our children to do something at home, so it’s important to try and get that right.”
This is part of the reason that he implemented the policy of reading for 20 minutes per day, as reading “doubles up as being really positive family time”.
On the other hand, Balfour argues that formal homework can have a positive impact on family life, as it gets the whole family involved in a child’s learning. “Our experience is that it opens up a learning dialogue at home,” he says, and that this can “reinforce that partnership between child and school and child and parent and parent and school, and therefore helps to embed learning further”.
Homework can impact children differently depending on the support they have at home. There is a “big inequality in terms of homework,” explains child psychologist Dr Howard Fine. If you come from a middle-class background, you have “more support” when doing your homework, whereas “if you’re coming from a low SES [socioeconomic] family situation, you’ve got less support around you, you’re less likely to do it, there’s more pressure on yourself”.
Certain children are at a disadvantage, Balfour agrees. “I think there’s undoubtedly an issue there that homework for some pupils can be a challenge in their home environment, there’s no doubt about that. But I would argue that that’s not just homework — that’s also education in its totality.”
For these children, he says you need to “absolutely make those allowances”. This could mean providing a quiet space for a child to do their homework before school or at lunchtime.
Meanwhile, Perkins argues you need to mould your homework policy to fit the pupils at your school. “It depends on your context — and the demographics and the type of school and community that you have,” he says. It’s about “getting the right level and the right type of homework for the kind of school you’ve got, through working with your parents, teachers and children.”. Littletown Primary’s “mixed catchment” is one of the reasons they implemented a more flexible homework model.
Children’s mental health
The experts disagree on the impact of homework on a child’s wellbeing. On the one hand, Balfour argues that homework encourages “independence and confidence” and “that sense that they can do it, and that their point of view is a valid one”.
This may be true in small doses, but are children being asked to do too much homework at a young age? If so, there could be implications for a child’s mental health. “Too much homework, too much pressure, will have an impact on self-esteem: ‘Am I good enough? Can I keep up?’” Dr Fine explains.
There’s often more pressure on children with “helicopter parenting,” Dr Fine continues, as these parents “might push for more and more work”. This can have a negative impact on a child’s wellbeing as “the more homework you offer children, the more likely they are going to have an increase in anxiety, an increase in depression, potentially some behavioural difficulties as well as mood disturbance”.
It’s essential that children are not overwhelmed with work — which was one of the criticisms that Perkins received before he changed his school’s homework policy, as parents told him: “My child doesn’t have any time to just exist as a child.”
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
FOR PRIMARY SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN
Create a homework space – a quiet spot in the house where a suitably filled pencil case is always on hand.
Take their homework seriously – it will encourage them to do the same. So, no TV or radio on in the background - and let them see you switch off your phone to make it clear distraction won’t help.
If they genuinely struggle to complete their homework then stop before they become distressed. Explain that you will send a note into school telling their teacher you need a bit more help. Your child’s school will welcome this as it flags up gaps in learning that can be addressed.
FOR HIGHER SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN
Show interest and provide help with research but don't do their homework for them. Offer to read and edit assignments.
If they’re struggling, signpost online resources where they can find appropriate help.
Help with time management by insisting phones and other distractions are switched off during homework, but also that appropriate breaks are built into study time.
BY Katie Russell
Source: The Telegraph