Most answers to the homework question start with “it depends”. Here’s why.
Who likes homework? No-one. Children certainly don’t. After a long day at school they are tired and grumpy about it. After a long day at work parents are tired and grumpy at the prospect of making their children do it. Cue the familial tensions and arguments that play out across the land on every weekday night. Except, of course if your children board. In which case you can relax with your glass of Pinot Grigio and feel smug.
Or is that really true? You see, we parents also love homework. We want loads of it. We think that our children won’t succeed without it. So we think badly of a school that doesn’t set enough of it. And we get anxious if we think that the school down the road is setting more than ours.
What is homework for?
There are three main reasons for homework. The first is to prepare for the next lesson (“flipped learning“). This will be background reading or research to facilitate an informed discussion in the next lesson.
The second reason is by far and away the most common. Consolidating what has been covered in class with essays, exercises and problem solving. If the classroom is for teaching, homework is for practicing and committing to memory.
The third reason is gaining in popularity. It’s the “opportunity for pupils to explore independent lines of enquiry in an unstructured setting”. OK, sounds promising for more senior pupils. But the reality might be more “Mum, can you (help me) make my Tudor house please?”
Is homework important?
The evidence is that at secondary school, homework is beneficial and improves achievement. For example, a study by the Institute of Education quantified that students who averaged two to three hours per night in their two GCSE years were ten times more likely to achieve five good GCSEs than those who didn’t.
As for primary level, studies of the benefits range from inconclusive to doubtful. The exception to this is reading practice with a parent, which is outside the usual definitions of homework.
Does more homework mean better outcomes? Is it linear? Do outcomes improve with each 15 minutes spent doing it?
Research suggests so, but it is age and personality dependent. If “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” then there must be a point of limited return. Headteachers who advocate less homework suggest that children should spend the extra time getting fresh air. They also emphasise the value of quality family time. Not stuck in front of the telly or the iPad then…
How much homework should my child be getting?
The English Department of Education used to provide a guide for how much homework children should be getting, by age. At primary school children should be getting 10 minutes per night for Years 1 and 2, rising to 30 minutes per night in Years 5 and 6. At senior school children should be getting 1.5 hours per night for Year 7 rising to 2.5 hours per night in Years 10 and 11. Although the guide was voluntary it did have the effect of increasing the percentage of state primary schools who set homework at all from 60% to 95%. The guidance was scrapped in 2012 and now homework is left to the discretion of individual headteachers.
Unfortunately none of this includes revision for exams which can be significant in a school that does regular testing. It is certainly significant for national exams.
Another guideline is the 10 minute rule; 10 minutes per night for each Year of Education. So Year 1 would have 10 minutes, Year 6 would have 1 hour and Year 11 would have 1 hour 50.
Yet another guideline is the 20 minutes per subject rule for ages 7 to 14 (Key Stages 2 and 3). There are two subjects per night in Key Stage 2 (last four years of primary school) making 40 minutes. There are three subjects per night in Key Stage 3 (first three years of senior school) making 60 minutes. In the two GCSE years the number of subjects stays at three but the time for each doubles to 40 minutes; a total of 2 hours per night.
These time guides are useful, but the reality is often very different. Some children take longer than others to do the same piece of homework. Some teachers set more than others. Furthermore, some children in the same class get more homework if they are considered more able.
You may have the occasional grumble about too much homework. But the chances are that you’re more likely to grumble about too little homework in the months leading up to important exams.