Are we overloading our children with work when they should be enjoying downtime? Georgina Blaskey finds out
Does homework actually make a difference to how children improve academically? For busy parents and school-weary kids, when the end of the day comes, homework time can be the final straw for everyone. In the privacy of kitchens across the land, exercise books get flung across the table, eyes roll at the thought of another comprehension, and an arts and crafts assignment is like a red rag to most mothers come 5pm.
At the school gates, homework is a bone of contention with ‘pushy’ parents wanting more and hands-off parents wanting downtime for their kids. After a day at primary school listening and learning, is there any brain space left for yet another task? For parents and teachers who do champion homework, what do they see as the benefits?
Many argue that regular, well-planned homework has its place. It can develop good work habits and self discipline as well as encourage skills and attitudes that help children improve their educational performance. Crucially, it can help parents to gain an insight into their child’s schoolwork and their ability, and create a platform for children and parents to interact. It can provide opportunities for individualised work and offer the chance to use resources not found in school, such as home computers, libraries and museums. But the key is setting homework that is relevant and well planned, and for many teachers already stretched with their jam-packed day and marking demands, homework can be an afterthought.
For those studying towards 11+, it’s essential to spend time revising. A group of 10 year olds I spoke to felt that homework at this point was a good idea to consolidate what they’re doing during the day and make sure they’ve really grasped a new maths concept or French verb conjugation, for example. But for those just starting on their school journey, it can feel like overkill. With Scandinavian children not embarking on formal education until the age of seven, it seems bizarre that children in the UK are coming home with 20-question worksheets every night. Recently, American ‘homework guru’ Harris Cooper of Duke University said, “There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary [aged four to 11] students.”
A recent study by the professor of education and policy maker at Pennsylvania State University, Gerald K LeTendre found, “Empirical studies have linked excessive homework to sleep disruption, indicating a negative relationship between the amount of homework, perceived stress and physical health. For primary school students, even 30 minutes of homework a night, if combined with other sources of academic stress, can have a negative impact. Researchers in China have linked homework of two or more hours per night with sleep disruption. Even though some cultures may normalise long periods of studying for primary-age children, there is no evidence to support that this level of homework has academic benefits. Also, when parents and children conflict over homework, and strong negative emotions are created, homework can actually have a negative association with academic achievement.”
So we’re back to the exercise book being flung across the kitchen table in clear defiance (at one point a regular occurrence in my home for a frustrated and exhausted seven year old. Interestingly, now she’s older her approach is the opposite and I find myself calling time on her studying when she’s happy to carry on). When you have a child who struggles with their homework, it’s all too easy to wade in and offer to help. Don’t! A study by the organisers of the Bett educational technology trade show found that in one in six families, it is the mothers and fathers who do all the homework. A tenth of parents who took part said it saved stress if they did the work themselves, although not all of them admitted to doing so regularly. A quarter said they had to stop themselves from completing all the exercises.* Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The question is what these parents are trying to prove. It is not a formal test, so why sacrifice their children’s learning in an attempt to make their children look good?”
As with many parenting issues, it’s about balance. Children who excel at school can find homework boring, and children who are struggling in class can find it a burden. A sensible strategy is to enforce the basics – reading every day, common spellings and times tables when appropriate – and avoid taking over and doing the work yourself, even if it does give you a bit of a thrill when they (read you) get awarded top marks!