The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Homework: how beneficial is it?

How effective is homework in improving pupil attainment? According to research, less is more.

Homework – love it or hate it, one thing is indisputable: it's one of the hottest topics amongst parents across the country.

Browse any corners of social media where parents hang out and you will see debates about homework raging at just about any time. They hold strong views on it, whether for or against, and the homework policies of schools in question receive extensive critical appraisal.

Well-known names on Twitter have waded in, too. Check out the timelines of Kirstie Allsopp, Rob Delaney, Gary Lineker and Jason Manford, for example, for evidence of disgruntled parents having to grapple with stressed children burdened with time-consuming homework tasks.

While such tweets get wide support from parents and teachers alike, most of whom agree that regular reading at home does not fall into the troubling 'homework' category, they also receive criticism from advocates of homework, who view it as an excellent training space for future learning and an opportunity to review current learning.   

What's the point in homework?

It’s extremely difficult to explore the effectiveness of homework as there are numerous reasons for giving children work to do at home.

  • Some homework tasks are about giving children the opportunity to practise and review the work they have been doing in the classroom.
  • Other tasks are preparing children for future learning, or helping children to apply previous learning in a new way.
  • Then there is homework to support the nurturing of habits, and the development of self-discipline, confidence, time management etc.

Some homework tasks will be well placed to achieve the intended goals and some will not.

Is homework a statutory requirement?

Schools are not required by law to set homework and parents do not have to force their children to complete any homework set. However, the DfE views it as good practice for schools to have clear expectations on homework that are set out in a policy that has been discussed with staff, pupils and parents. 

Any sanctions for non-completion of homework should be set out in a school’s behaviour policy. The right to punish a child refusing to complete homework stems from the 2006 Education and Inspections Act which allows schools to impose a 'disciplinary penalty' for failure to follow rules or 'reasonable instructions'.

Most parents and teachers agree that regular reading at home does not fall into the troubling 'homework' category

Although there are no guidelines for schools on setting homework, the DfE views it as having a 'positive educational benefit'. It says that not only does it help to reinforce the learning that takes place in the classroom, it also helps to encourage parental involvement and a love of learning. 

Despite this, schools are at liberty to determine their own homework policies. To find out more about about what the DfE says about homework policies, take a look at WhatDoTheyKnow

What does research tell us?

The research we do have on the value that homework adds to a child's education shows that smaller, more focused tasks may be beneficial. 

According to the Education Endowment Foundation 'There is some evidence that when homework is used as a short and focused intervention it can be effective in improving pupils’ attainment, but this is limited for primary pupils.'

The best kind of homework reinforces prior learning and does not take up more than an hour of a pupil's evening 

Likewise, Professor John Hattie suggests that 'Five to ten minutes has the same effect as one or two hours. The worst thing you can do is give kids projects. The best thing you can do is to reinforce something you’ve already learnt.'

Reinforce prior learning

Perhaps the take-home message for this tricky issue is that the clearer the person setting homework is about what the task is designed to achieve, the more likely it is to be of value. And if we can set reading at home aside, without entangling it in the messy heading of 'homework', we can help to preserve this healthy habit that just about everyone agrees is a good thing!

It seems that the best kind of homework reinforces prior learning and does not take up more than an hour of a pupil’s evening (and much less time for primary pupils). Less is more, and while the tasks set should be specific and focused, so too should the timely feedback.

Hannah Wilson, former head teacher of the Aureus School, told us about their approach to homework

We do not focus on homework at the Aureus School. We have an extended learning policy as we do not believe that homework has any impact and in most schools only creates stress, anxiety and detentions.

In KS3 our students have a reading list, a spelling list and online maths and MFL they can complete. We have an impressive personal development offer where they can choose from 12 different activities each night to develop a new skill and meet new people.

We have a highly engaged student body, our children stay after school willingly to learn new things. We focus on literacy and self-directed learning which is self-marked. This reduces anxiety for children and their families, sanctions and teacher workload.

As we move to KS4 we review independent learning and what this will look like for their options.

Closing words

Can we do better when it comes to setting homework? Most likely, yes, especially if we keep in mind the need for it to help to motivate pupils and consolidate their learning. But we should also be aware that if we don’t set any at all beyond reading, spelling and times tables, the research seems to suggest that we won’t be significantly disadvantaging anyone.   

Further reading

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