Homework – Is It Really Necessary?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 8 November 2022
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Homework

Back in 2016, I wrote in this column about the possible value of homework, as it was being much debated in the newspapers at the time. As our schools gear up for open nights, hoping to attract new year 8 pupils for 2023, is it timely to look at this again and see what our schools are setting out as their recommended approach, given that our young people access information and acquire knowledge in new ways now? From a parent’s point of view too, how does a traditional approach to homework fit into contemporary family life?

In my 2016 article, I quoted research by Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in Sydney University Richard Walker, who had raised questions about the value of homework.

The questions he posed included whether the homework involves new learning, is challenging, interesting and motivating for pupils and involves interaction with others. He found that benefits for younger primary school age pupils were minimal and that disadvantages reported included that young minds need rest and relaxation time to recover from the pressure and stresses of the school day.  Equally he argued, loss of socialisation time with friends can reduce important skill acquisition and reduce well rounded social development. He pointed to the USA, where there is a vociferous anti-homework movement which believes strongly that it is detrimental to family life. His research also found that countries like Finland who use less homework actually do better in international attainment test comparisons than countries with a traditional approach.

There is a counter argument of course and those of us who have put children through secondary education know that an increase in conflict between parents and children around homework is only to be expected. On the plus side, it can be argued that with less together time these days, homework collaboration can be important family bonding time. Teaching a child to be responsible, determined, methodical and organised and to meet deadlines is surely valuable too. Then as now, my instinctive response is that when a pupil first moves into secondary school, GCSE and A Level examinations can seem a long way off, but preparation for these life changing challenges must begin at age 11.  Success in GCSE and A Level still hinges on the ability to discipline oneself to study in an organised, methodical way and train the brain to remember facts.  Examinations aside, self-management skills are also essential for coping as an adult and homework is a perfect vehicle for preparing for that.  

So, is it possible to respect the experience of other successful educational approaches in countries like Finland while still preparing pupils properly for academic challenges ahead in the tried and trusted way we have always used?

Dr Julian Murphy, head at Loughborough Amherst School, argues that there is a case for rethinking traditional homework methods which are no longer fit for purpose, “Beyond being a frustration for parents and pupils alike, I believe that current homework processes – doing summative written tasks with all of their books open – isn’t a beneficial way to monitor a child’s progress, build their knowledge base or hone their examination technique. Instead, it’s simply an indicator of how engaged their parents are, or how good their access to resources and time is.”

He acknowledges that homework can be a constant battle and that the end of a working day, adults can be exhausted while children would quite often prefer to be playing games, watching films or doing anything other than reopening their textbooks.  He quotes a pre-pandemic study which found that only 11% of parents in the UK spent an hour a day helping their children after school, while as many as 62% would do so in India.

Dr Murphy also quotes recent research by the Children’s Commissioner which found that homework and exams cause more stress for children (66%), than worrying about what other people think of them (39%) and bullying (25%).  Ofsted also found that over a third of parents don’t think homework in primary school is helpful to their children, calling it a “huge cause of stress” for families.

He advocates a new approach, more in tune perhaps with the concerns expressed above about long term training for examinations. Current homework tasks require pupils to complete written work with all their notes in front of them. Instead, he encourages the practice of ‘split homework’.  Here, students spend half of their time revising.  Then, for the second half of their homework, they’re set a brief written task to complete under timed conditions with their books closed.

The benefits of this approach to homework he claims are threefold; it teaches students how to revise; it allows students to practice working under examination conditions and it forces students to retrieve what they have just learned, which aids genuine understanding and, most importantly, helps transfer knowledge into the long-term memory. From the school’s point of view, the split homework approach also provides a much more accurate assessment of pupil progress, as well as providing an early warning regarding any issues that pupils may have with sitting examinations.

Traditional approaches to homework in our secondary schools still dominate the induction literature prospective pupils will read as they contemplate choice of school.  There are lots of different approaches from school to school described regarding homework timetables and homework diaries, etc. Fundamentally however, the hard truth for these eleven-year-olds and their parents is that homework will be a part of their lives going forward.  With ICT innovation and online access to knowledge now an everyday experience for us all, the way that this homework is organised has of course changed and the experience of lockdown home learning will have brought parents face to face with new challenges of keeping young minds “on task” with such easy access to alternative entertainment sources on their devices.

So, is homework really necessary?   I would hold that it still is, but with the caveat that it should be focussed on developing learning skills and character qualities to facilitate future success.

This article is correct at 08/11/2022

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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