I have had a long association with education, both professionally and as a parent, and I have developed a strong opinion on setting homework for young children. As a former teacher, you may be surprised to learn that I have always been against extensive formal homework for children at primary school level.
The schools that I taught in did not set formal homework at this level. In fact, the first school that I taught in actively discouraged the setting of any homework at all. Despite this, pupils in its classes went on to do extremely well at secondary school and further education. The lack of homework did not harm them in any way.
Indeed I am not the only one who feels this way. Professor John Hattie, a leading expert on student achievement, found little evidence to support the link between academic success and homework at a young age. This has been the subject of a recent blog by King Edward’s Grammar School head teacher Tom Sherrington who touches on the apparent difference in effect between secondary and primary school homework. (http://headguruteacher.com/2012/10/21/homework-what-does-the-hattie-research-actually-say/)
So, I have to ask, who does benefit from it?
Too often, in my view, homework stresses young children, parents and teachers. After a full day at school, a child’s learning might actually be better enhanced by calling it a day and switching off onto recreational activities. A good night’s sleep, for example, is crucial to a child’s development and might be compromised if the child has to cope with homework on top of regular after-school activities.
Homework can overwhelm struggling pupils, potentially reinforcing the problems they have, and boring homework can prove a turn off for even high achievers.
It is an extra burden for the parents too, who have to ensure the child crams it in between sports and clubs, cooking, chores and visits. They are also expected to help their children, act as unqualified home teaching assistants.
For the teacher, of course, there is the additional workload of marking, feedback and record keeping.
The homework itself can be mundane. In my experience, where primary pupils have been set regular homework it is often reduced to a series of mindless exercises, worksheets which require little thought or imagination, and understandably so because it is easy for teachers to administer. I cannot see how this helps the child.
So, if it’s not the child or the teacher or the parent who benefits from homework then who does?
Undoubtedly, there are some parents who believe that lots of homework, despite the burdens, is a sign of a “good school”. As a teacher, I saw this first hand.
Two children were taken out of my class and into private education precisely because of their dissatisfaction with the school’s homework policy. I do not know what happened to these children but I do know that other pupils in that class, who had just as much ability, went on to do very well. This preconception that a good primary school is one that overworks its pupils is as wrong as it is damaging.
Learning outside of the classroom is important for children of any age but, particularly for primary school children, there are other engaging and fun ways to learn. Parents should read with their children – yes, even Harry Potter – and encourage informal research on class topics. There are museums to visit, local libraries for research and vast internet resources.
And, indeed should we not view and encourage family board games, days out, cooking, helping around the home and making models as equally important? Many of these activities involve the complex problem solving, mathematical, language and social skills that children need to develop.
Secondary school is the time when homework becomes important in a child’s life. The children are more able to organise their time and will have become more independent learners. They are less reliant on parents and less distracted. Furthermore, they need less sleep so their days are longer. In fact a good secondary school will help the transition to independent learning and are more likely to have well established homework policies.
If primary school insists on setting an extensive homework policy, the question needs to be asked ‘who is benefitting from this?’ and ‘why is the school setting this policy?’
If the answer is not purely and honestly that it is in the best interest for the child’s development, rather than placating parents or outside agencies, then isn’t that policy misguided? If, despite all these arguments against, the school insists on setting significant amounts of homework then I believe that the school has an obligation to minimize the negative impact on the children and their families. This includes provision for all pupils to do their homework at a free, fully inclusive after school club with proper supervision. In an age when many parents work long hours, a child should not be punished because of their parent’s inability or time availability to help.
It is my view that this equality of opportunity, rather than sending reams of worksheets home, is how parents can distinguish a good school from one wishing to be seen as ambitious.