The Big Question: Are children set too
much homework, and does it hinder their education? Why are we asking
this question now?
A new study to be published in the UK this spring
claims that too much study after school turns children off education and
sparks family rows. The book, The Homework Myth, by American academic
Alfie Kohn, also claims that it does not help them to do well in tests,
Is he right about homework?
There is international evidence to suggest Alfie Kohn
may have a point on the test scores, if children are set too much
homework. The Third International Maths and Science Survey, published in
1998, found that children who did a moderate amount of homework did a
little better than those who do a lot or very little. For instance, the
Finns, who do less homework than the British, score considerably better
in international tests - coming top of almost every table for maths and
science achievement through the ages of compulsory schooling. The
Italians, who do more homework than the British, do less well.
However, Kohn, a lecturer and writer about education,
psychology and parenting from Belmont, Massachusetts, would argue there
should be no homework set at all. "Kids should have the chance to relax
after a full day at school," he says. Primary school children should do
no more than read for pleasure once they get home, he adds.
Should teachers not set homework, then?
If you had asked that question of David Blunkett when
he was Education Secretary, you would have got very short shrift indeed.
He was the first UK Education Secretary to draw up homework guidelines
for every single age group. His blueprint, which is still in force
today, recommends that four- and five-year-olds should have 20 minutes
homework a night - 10 minutes reading with parents and 10 minutes'
reading alone or doing sums with their parents.
By age six and seven, this should be increased to 30
minutes - 20 minutes reading with parents and 10 minutes reading alone
and practising sums. For eight- and nine-year-olds, this should be
increased to 40 minutes - split 20/20 between reading with parents and
homework. The amount should increase until 15- and 16-year-olds studying
for their GCSEs are doing between one-and-a-half and two hours a night.
He described critics of his homework policy as revealing "blatant
elitism dressed up as well-intentioned liberalism".
His argument was: "Surely it is not a lot to ask an
11-year-old who spends three hours in front of the TV to work for half
an hour?" The verdict given in Homework: The Evidence by Sue Hallam of
London University's Institute of Education - considered by many people
to be the most detailed study of homework - is: "Studies comparing
homework with supervised study have generally found homework to be
superior in increasing attainment but there are exceptions -
particularly at elementary school level." Maths is the subject children
are most likely to improve in through homework, she adds.
Have homework guidelines worked?
Mr Blunkett's decision to produce the guidelines was
based on research which showed that only 5 per cent of schools in the UK
set maths homework three days a week for nine-to-ten-year-olds, compared
to more than 80 per cent in other countries such as France, Hungary,
Switzerland and the United States. The comparison was more even in
secondary schools, although the UK still set less maths homework than
There is evidence that more homework is now being set
- although that first emerged even before the blueprint was published.
In 1983, figures from the Schools' Health Education Unit at Exeter
University showed that just over half of boys aged 14 and 15 said they
had done some homework the previous evening - compared to 68.7 per cent
Increasingly, in schools in England, homework clubs
are being set up so pupils can finish their work before they go home.
Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, Kent - set up to replace the
worst-performing secondary school in the country, Ramsgate, where less
than 5 per cent of pupils got five A* to C grade passes at GCSE - has
initiated this as a recognition that pupils from poorer homes may not
have anywhere suitable to study at home. Results have improved
dramatically. In addition, growing numbers of inner-city schools have
set up clubs at their local football club - all the Premier League clubs
are taking part in this initiative. As an incentive to do the homework,
the pupils are allowed a kick-around on their team's hallowed turf
afterwards. These initiatives have mainly focused on helping struggling
pupils catch up in class and, according to the National Foundation for
Educational Research (one of the most respected research organisations
in the country), have had a marked effect in improving literacy and
numeracy standards amongst slow learners.
Are teachers setting the right kind of homework?
There is evidence that a number of schools in the UK
are moving away from traditional homework to more "fun"-based
educational activities - such as organising out-of-school trips to
museums, theatres etc. This goes hand in glove with a change of climate
in educational thinking, which has recognised that new Labour's regime
of compulsory reading hours and maths lessons and tests may have been a
little too rigorous.
Ms Hallam argues that homework needs to be
"meaningful", adding: "Homework, if taken to the extreme, can completely
disrupt family life." Kohn would go much further than this - arguing
children should engage in things like creating their own work of art
using recycled materials, design a poster with their parents about their
favourite toy and devise a maths quiz to play with other pupils. He
would outlaw exercises such as learning times tables, lists of spellings
and completing a set of sums from a textbook out of school.
Will Kohn's book change anything?
Whether there will be more lasting change is
debatable. Experts have disagreed over the value of homework for more
than a century. In 1883, after "payment by results" for teachers was
introduced, time spent on homework rose sharply until social reformers
campaigned for a reduction. In 1929, a leading educational journal was
asking "is homework necessary?" after a survey found that 11-year-olds
were doing up to 12 hours a week. By 1935 school inspectors were
recommending a reduction for the under-12's.
The climate had changed again by the mid 1990's -
hence Labour's commitment to rote learning and the introduction of the
homework charter. However, the Government's guidelines still only
recommend a maximum of 7.5 hours a week for 12 and 13-year-olds.
Should schools continue to set homework?
- Homework helps pupils develop independent
learning skills - which they need for secondary school exams and
- Well thought-out assignments have been shown to
improve performance - particularly in maths
- Homework, particularly during the school
holidays, ensures pupils do not forget what they have learned
- Homework can increase tension between children
and parents, leading to family rows
- Homework turns children off education - they
should relax with more "fun"-based activities
- Too much homework can do positive harm, as has
been noted in a subsequent fall-off of scores of in test performance
30 January 2007