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Emilie Silverwood-Cope: What is the point of homework?

Is there any point in children doing homework? I’m only asking because two mums have told me that their children (at different secondary schools) don’t get any at all. The schools have said there’s no benefit to children doing homework so have stopped setting it altogether.

A mother and young daughter doing homework.
A mother and young daughter doing homework.

Both these children are in Year 10 so GCSEs are closing in faster than backbenchers around a wounded Prime Minister. One of these mums told me her son is on the Xbox by 3.30pm where he stays until she gets home from work at 7pm. “I wish school would set him something,” she said, “just so he had some accountability.”

Can children be mentally prepared for an exam if they haven’t developed the grit to sit and do their homework every evening? She doesn’t think her son will be.

When it comes to homework, it seems parents fall into two camps: those who think homework is unfair and a waste of time (as well as causing unnecessary family strife) and those who are very much pro (and some who wished their schools set more).

Parents (mums) told me about getting home from work exhausted just to spend another three hours battling to get homework done. One mum said her entire weekend is taken up dealing with homework. Another, this time a mum of a Year 6 student, wrote: “I hate it! I’m dreading senior school already. I think kids need some down time and shouldn’t be spending their evenings doing homework.”

Some children will get on with what they’ve been given to do while others will procrastinate, cry, hide and do just about anything to avoid getting started. I suspect your attitude to homework depends very much on which type of child you’ve got.

The schools not setting any homework at all were in the minority. Even at primary level most schools are setting some kind of homework (spellings, creative writing and times tables being the usual fare at primary schools).

What do teachers think though, seeing as they are the ones setting it (or not)? Teachers are also divided but most seem to think it’s not really worth it. One said the only people who complain when it’s not set are the parents.

Behind anonymous accounts on Mumsnet they are open about how pointless they think homework is. When I asked a similar question on social media, teachers contacted me privately to say they thought it was a waste of time, and not to bother with it until Year 10. One teacher even said it was unfair because the children with supportive helpful parents did better than the children without interested parents causing the attainment gap to grow. I’m not sure this argument is fair - children do better at a lot of things (from Lego to football to playing the cello) when their parents show an interest but it doesn’t mean we stop the activity. It does, though, raise the important issue of parental involvement.

One of the main benefits of homework is that it provides a bridge between school, child and home. According to a teacher friend of mine, the ‘interestedness’ of parents in their child’s education is one of the biggest predictors of academic success. Put simply, children with parents who take an interest in their school work will make better progress. This doesn’t mean parents should sit there doing poetry homework. It means asking what homework they have, whether they’ve done it, do they need help and how they did on their last project.

Emilie Silverwood-Cope. Picture: Keith Heppell
Emilie Silverwood-Cope. Picture: Keith Heppell

Another argument in favour of homework is that it builds good habits. Children learn to learn, develop self-discipline and are better prepared for higher education. There is less evidence, however, to support this, particularly at primary level.

Professor John Hattie (a researcher in education) is the go to expert, so much so I’m going to quote him at length: “Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. In high school it’s larger… which is why we need to get it right. Not why we need to get rid of it. It’s one of those lower hanging fruit that we should be looking at in our primary schools to say, ‘Is it really making a difference?’ If you try and get rid of homework in primary schools many parents judge the quality of the school by the presence of homework. So, don’t get rid of it. Treat the zero as saying, ‘It’s probably not making much of a difference but let’s improve it’.”

Hattie’s research also showed that 10 minutes (of the right targeted homework) has the same benefit of a couple of hours. It’s the sitting down to do the page of maths that counts, rather than sweating over some project for two hours. The best thing they can get given is something to reinforce what they’ve already covered in class. Again, parental input matters.

Personal experience has shown me if I hadn’t gone through my child’s homework I would never have uncovered serious problems and gaps in their knowledge. My best tip, this time from a literacy expert, is get your child to read aloud to you, even your older ones. You’ll uncover a lot more - comprehension, vocabulary gaps and learning difficulties - than homework will. Also, google your school’s value added score. You might be surprised.

Read more Parenting Truths from Emilie Silverwood-Cope every month in the Cambridge Independent.

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