Is homework pointless?

Comedian Rob Delaney has sparked a Twitter debate about the value of homework, especially in primary schools, reported here by BBC News.

Although I’m not a primary specialist, I was the deputy of a 4-18 school and head of a 7-18 school.  I can see that, apart from encouraging wider reading in the primary phase, homework may have less value at this stage of a child’s education than it might have for secondary age pupils. I’d be interested to know what primary colleagues think.  I do believe homework can be useful for secondary age pupils, including Sixth Form students who may be preparing for more independent study in Further or Higher Education.  I think it also helps to prepare those of us, like teachers, to enter a professional arena where the work we need to do does not finish when we leave the building.

I have always felt that well-planned and thoughtfully constructed homework tasks do have their place in the secondary school.  I know that parental pressure on young people to complete homework can cause tension.  Getting the balance right between supporting your children’s education (which includes encouraging them to spend time on completing homework conscientiously), and interfering and doing too much (risking alienating the children and antagonising teachers) can be a real challenge.  Over my time as a head I had conversations with parents requesting more homework be set, and with those who complained that the amount of homework expected was interfering with their family lives.

I would suggest the following advice to parents and to schools based on my own experience:

  1. Schools should make clear how much time they expect children to spend on homework and should have a policy which shows a gradual increase as they progress through Key Stage 3, to GCSE and A level. An hour or an hour and a half a night may be suitable for the lower secondary years, increasing through GCSE and A level, where timescales also need to become more flexible to give older pupils the opportunities to develop the organisational skills they will need at university or in the world of work.  Incidentally, in my school no homework was set for Year 7 in the first two weeks of the Autumn Term, to give new secondary age pupils one fewer thing to feel anxious about as they found their feet.
  2. Parents should keep a check on how much time their child IS spending, in relation to these guidelines, and talk to the child and the school if the time spent is clearly significantly below or above the time suggested. It is just as worrying if children are spending too much time on homework as too little.
  3. If homework is assessed it should be possible to earn the highest marks within the time stipulated. Schools must avoid overly rewarding children who spend far more time than has been suggested on particular tasks.  This reinforces the message that more is always better.
  4. Although communicating with children of all ages about homework is good, doing it for them isn’t. If your son or daughter isn’t willing to complete or isn’t capable of completing what is set, the school needs to know.  Doing it for them just hides the problem.  Parents need to talk to the school if this is the case.
  5. Homework should always be useful reinforcement of learning or extension of work completed in school so that it has a clear purpose and is never set for the sake of it. Ideally, it should be satisfying to complete and even enjoyable!

I do think that completing homework is a useful life skill, involving as it does self-discipline, organisational ability, initiative and resourcefulness.  It is a way of reinforcing and extending learning as long as it is carefully and thoughtfully devised.  Sometimes asking younger pupils to begin their homework before the end of the lesson, when the teacher is there to answer questions and check everyone is on task and clear about what is required from them, is a good strategy.

Homework does bring its issues, and these need to be addressed by communicating with children and with the school, but I don’t believe that banning it is the answer.  In most aspects of life, I would opt for educating rather than banning, generally!  We may have a natural inclination to smooth the way for our children, but actually equipping them with the skills they need to navigate life’s hurdles is far more important.  Negotiating homework may be one opportunity to do this.

Photo credit: John Berry


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