The Homework Debate

Students across the country would likely have a ready response if asked whether homework is a beneficial use of their free time. It is an on-going debate that has brought out strong views on either side across the globe, with advocates and opponents both trying to quantify its impact on a child’s academic performance.

Last week Michael Gove announced plans by the government to remove homework guidelines introduced in 1998. The change is an attempt to free up schools from unnecessary bureaucracy, allowing head teachers greater autonomy when deciding how much (if any) additional work their students are required to complete at home. It follows complaints by parents that too much homework is limiting the available time children have for play and sports. Under the former guidelines, primary schools were directed to set an hour of homework a week for children aged five to seven, increasing to half an hour each night for seven to eleven year olds. Secondary schools were told to set 45 to 90 minutes a night for students aged 11 to 14, and up to two-and-a-half hours each night for those aged 14 to 16. Although the above recommendations were not statutory, many schools viewed the figures as reasonable targets for each age group and therefore felt compelled to meet them.

Aside from schools, many parents will applaud the government’s decision, arguing that homework can cause friction in the home. Opposition towards the guidelines was fuelled by research questioning their value, specifically in primary schools where homework assignments were claimed to cause anxiety for younger students and contribute to the overall decline in physical activity. Recent studies have highlighted the shift in public attention towards the increasing rates of childhood obesity and lowered activity levels, coupled with the increase in hours spent watching television and completing homework in the last few decades. In many cases young people report feeling overwhelmed by the need to fit more into their day, with physical activity and time spent with friends often replaced by more sedentary activities.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers had previously asked for a ban on compulsory homework in primary schools, arguing that younger children needed free time to explore, experiment, and develop a love of learning for its own sake without feeling pressured or having to forgo time spent with their family. They highlighted the longer hours UK children already spend at school compared to their peers in other European countries, and the earlier age at which students begin structured education. The addition of homework is yet another contributing factor in the child’s already overtaxed schedule.

Additionally, many parents find their own evenings impacted by their child’s homework, and complain that they feel unable to help with parts of the modern curriculum (the introduction of computer programming, for example) or new methods of teaching traditional subjects.

On the other side of the debate are those who feel that homework is an effective way to strengthen understanding of knowledge gained in the classroom, as well as an opportunity for parents to be more involved in their child’s education. Homework can be seen as a means of developing independent work ethic and practical research skills; both of which are essential for future education and adulthood. However, some studies suggest that it is the type of homework and not the sheer amount that is significant, with students achieving higher marks and feeling more motivated when the assignments given involved a higher emphasis on student autonomy rather than drill and practice tasks. The challenge for teachers is therefore to set work that is both supportive of the learning done during school hours (rather than set to meet a quota) and presented to the child in a way that allows creativity and freedom to explore an idea independently.

In terms of addressing the concern over anxiety in the home, some suggestions have been put forth by the parenting charity Family Lives. Making homework a normal part of the home routine and encouraging the child to develop a good attitude towards their work at a young age will go a long way in taking the pain out of homework later on in their school life. Responding to comments or questions in a positive way, even if a parent isn’t able to answer them immediately, will nurture a more confident approach. Directing the child towards internet or library research or asking other family members and teachers can teach them to actively search out answers rather than reacting with anxiety. The environment is also important. Some children will prefer to complete work immediately after school, whereas others may need a break first. Either approach will require a well-lit space to work without interruption. If there isn’t room at home, then a local library is a good alternative. Some schools have created homework clubs during lunch breaks or in the evenings to help minimise any difficulties at home. Others, such as Norwich’s Jane Austen College, have gone so far as to cut homework entirely and have lengthened the school day instead. This tactic prevents situations where parents are completing work on behalf of the student, and stops the encroachment of school onto family life.

For the near future at least, homework appears set to remain a constant part of the education experience. There are valid reasons for schools to consider restricting the amount and type of work given out, but eliminating non-classroom study altogether is unlikely and it seems that ensuring the usefulness and variety of the work should be the focus of improvement.

Photo: Bill Selak

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