Should homework be scrapped?

The costs and benefits of working outside of lessons
lourdesnique, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
lourdesnique, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Children in both primary and secondary schools are typically given work to complete outside of lessons. The aim is to consolidate or prepare for classroom learning, yet the evidence for the effectiveness of homework is mixed, and there are important costs to consider.

Many of us will remember evenings, mornings, or last minute break times spent completing homework. They’re probably not the best memories from our childhoods, but at least they helped us to learn, right? Well, the evidence suggests this isn’t necessarily the case.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) examined homework at primary and secondary levels. In primary school, homework was estimated to provide two months of additional progress, which EEF described as ‘modest’. In secondary school, homework was estimated to provide a more encouraging five months of additional progress.

“Homework creates the best learning effect when the tasks are specific, when there is high quality teacher feedback, and when parents offer support.”

However, EEF’s analysis also shows that there is variation in the impact of homework, depending on what kind of homework is set, with the best learning effect when the tasks are specific, when there is high quality teacher feedback, and when parents offer support. The role of teachers and parents in successful homework shows that homework is not as simple as it seems.

There’s much more to consider than attainment

Since the type of task set and the quality of feedback are important for ensuring homework has a positive impact on attainment, a large portion of the burden falls on teachers. In addition to preparing for lessons, teachers are expected to set quality focused homework, and then spend time marking it and giving useful feedback. For teachers who are overstretched, this is no mean feat. Setting and marking homework could take time away from preparing quality, engaging lessons.

Perhaps more significant are the family factors that contribute to homework effectiveness. Pupils who have support from parents, grandparents, or siblings, are likely to do better in their homework than those whose families cannot offer support. Some parents may work in the evenings, care for relatives, or not have the skills and knowledge to help. Some pupils have a quiet desk where they can complete their homework, while others live in a noisy small space without that luxury. These factors raise the concerning possibility that homework in fact widens the attainment gap between the highest and lowest performing students, with those from richer backgrounds gaining the most from homework.

“There is a concerning possibility that homework widens the attainment gap between the highest and lowest performing students, with those from richer backgrounds gaining the most from homework.”

For some pupils and families, homework may be a source of stress, potentially leading to sleep deprivation. It also takes free time away from children who could be engaged in activities of their choosing, such as reading for pleasure, learning an instrument, playing games, getting involved in sports, and just relaxing in front of a screen (they’re not as bad as you might think!).

Free, supervised homework clubs, as offered in some schools and libraries in England, are perhaps the most egalitarian approach to homework, ensuring that all children are given support to complete their work. But this approach seems to simply extend the school day, keeping children away from their families, friends and the activities they’d prefer to be doing. While homework is considered a financially ‘low-cost’ intervention for improving outcomes, it certainly seems high-cost for teachers, parents and pupils.

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