Is homework worth the hassle?

By Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionHomework: A chance to learn or a chance to have a really big argument?

Homework can be a nightmare - for the parents.

You know that sinking feeling. It's late in the evening and you've caught the glint in the eye of the wine bottle in the fridge.

And then you get the call. "Can you help with this homework?"

Before you even start a long night of history or incomprehensible maths, there's just about time for an argument about why they didn't ask three hours earlier.

It's almost impossible to resist the urge to go into parental irony mode. And that's really going to irritate them even more.

How did they find time to take enough Snapchat pictures to fill the National Portrait Gallery but couldn't manage to start their homework?

Then when you think it's all over, it gets even worse. Somewhere deep into the night, you hear the final stage of the homework trauma.

"There's no ink in the printer."

But is there any point to it all?

A secondary school in Essex is scrapping the traditional approach to homework, allowing pupils to choose tasks rather than having a set amount of work to be completed.

image captionPupils who did homework were 10 times more likely to do well in GCSEs, researchers found

It's not the first such ditching of homework.

Last month a message from a teacher in Texas in the United States calling off homework was widely shared on social media.

"After much research this summer, I am trying something new," the teacher wrote to parents.

"I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your children to bed early."

But was she right? Is homework an unnecessary burden?

Prof Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education says there is "hard evidence" from research that homework really does improve how well pupils achieve. "There is no question about that."

But she says this doesn't mean that endlessly increasing the amount of homework will keep delivering better results.

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image captionA parent exhausted after being up all night doing primary school homework

At some point, the benefits of more homework stop. But the difficult part is that this homework saturation point is different for each individual.

Another complication, says Prof Hallam, is that the most able pupils probably need the least homework - but in practice, teachers give pupils in the top ability groups the most homework.

It would be more effective if the least able pupils were given the most homework.

Prof Hallam also says the benefits of homework are more doubtful in primary school than in secondary.

But she says there is no evidence that homework can be actively counter-productive to learning.

A big study published by the Department for Education also found homework made a positive difference.

After taking into account family background, the amount of time spent on homework was found to be a strong predictor of doing well in exams in secondary school.

"The strongest effects were noted for those who reported spending two to three hours doing homework on a typical school night," said the study from researchers at the University of Oxford, Birkbeck and the Institute of Education.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionDogs have been carrying the can for missing homework since at least the 1920s

Pupils who did that amount of homework were almost 10 times more likely to achieve five good GCSEs than students who did not spend any time on homework.

Homework has also always been something of a political football.

In the US, it's claimed that the habit of piling on homework went back to the 1950s and Cold War fears that the US was losing the space race to the Soviet Union.

In an attempt to catch up with the cosmonauts, US schools hit the homework to rocket-boost young learners.

Even though homework seems to be such an entrenched part of the English school system, there are no official guidelines to impose it.

There used to be recommendations for an hour a week for five to seven-year-olds, rising to 2.5 hours per night for pupils aged between 14 and 16.

But that was scrapped four years ago - leaving schools to make their own decisions.

If the late-night arguments over homework are too much, there is always the last-minute excuse.

Blaming dogs for eating homework has been an excuse in circulation since at least the 1920s.

But a college survey showed the current most popular excuse for homework being destroyed was milk spilled over it at breakfast.

And like tears over late-night homework, there's no point crying over spilt milk.

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