Homework: to do or not to do?

Posted on: 28 Sept 2018
Posted by: Simon Detre

Following the recent debate regarding the importance of homework, Simon Detre, deputy head (academic and digital) from The Beacon School, joins the discussion.

Imagine the situation… You arrive home late and tired from work having battled with public transport. The children have already eaten and it is bedtime. Everybody goes up the stairs and all is harmonious until suddenly “Mum!! Dad!! I have just remembered about my homework!” A tense discussion ensues and it turns out that child number two’s sheet of maths questions, due tomorrow, has been overlooked. You reassure child number two that you will email the teacher to explain, but child number two refuses to be placated. “No! If I don’t do it the teacher will KILL me!” Reluctantly, you send child number two back downstairs to complete the sheet. But it gets worse. There is no sheet. “I must have lost it!” You throw yourself upon the mercy of the class parents’ WhatsApp group, begging somebody to share a photo of the maths sheet and eventually you get one, which you then have to print (“do we have any paper? Does the printer have any ink?”) and the homework gets done.

Is this a worthwhile exercise? A good use of time? Does homework actually enhance children’s learning? How? A debate was sparked on social media this week when the American comedian and actor Rob Delaney wrote, “Why do they give 7 yr olds so much homework in UK & how do I stop this. I want my kid frolicking & drawing & playing football.” In a later tweet, Rob wrote “I will throw my kid in a lake before I send them to private school” and so some of what follows might not help him, however my view is that homework is a worthwhile part of education.

The research evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that – at secondary level at least – homework has an important role to play. It states that “On average, the impact of homework on learning is consistently positive (leading to on average five months’ additional progress)”. It goes on to emphasise, however, that how homework is set is likely to be very important. I agree and I acknowledge that at primary level the evidence is less strong. However, the same Toolkit rates feedback as amongst the most useful strategies a school can deploy, stating “Feedback studies tend to show very high effects on learning”. At its simplest, feedback means giving information to children about their performance, with the aim of improving their learning. In many schools, one of the principal areas in which feedback is given is in response to homework. This is why I believe there is a strong case for quality homework with quality feedback.

In their earliest years at school, two of the most vital things that children learn are how to read (and, by extension, how to write and spell) and how to do arithmetic (and especially mental arithmetic and times tables). These are essential life skills and the learning is inextricably linked to homework – the reading books sent from school to read aloud at home, the practising and reinforcement of times tables and spellings (I still recall, as a boy, learning how to spell “beautiful” in a traffic jam on the way to school) are crucial.

The elephant in the room from the perspective of schools like mine (boys’ 13+ prep) is the shifting sands of senior school entry requirements, with children sitting a multitude of different tests in different year groups for different schools, rather than a single exam for all. The floodgates were opened when one or two independent schools abandoned the established practice and set their own tests and the system has never got back on an even keel. Ultimately, the pressure this inflicts is borne by children. The amount of homework, in terms of past papers and so on that an 11- or 12-year old in this situation has to face has significantly increased and there are resultant pupil wellbeing issues that we deal with. Nobody would design this system if starting from scratch.

Like Rob Delaney, I believe passionately in the importance of “frolicking & drawing & playing football”. I acknowledge that schools may not always get the balance right. But homework does matter and is almost certainly here to stay.

About Simon Detre

Simon Detre is deputy head (academic and digital) from The Beacon School in Buckinghamshire.