Over the past six months I have been conducting unscientific polls of how many primary schools currently set homework. Of around 300 school leaders that I have asked, around 70% do so.
Whilst this might not be representative of the national picture, it suggests that homework is regularly set in many primary schools. And this is despite the fact that the evidence for doing so is weak. This is what the education endowment foundation toolkit says:
‘It is certainly the case that schools whose pupils do homework tend to be successful schools. However it is less clear that the homework is the reason why they are successful. There is some evidence that when homework is used as a short and focused intervention it can be effective in improving students’ attainment. Overall the general benefits are likely to be modest if homework is more routinely set. There is clear evidence that it is helpful at secondary level, but there is much less evidence of benefit at primary level.’
So why is it set? How many hours per year of teacher time are spent marking homework? Primary homework is often defended because it ‘fosters independent learning skills’ or ‘it prepares for what is being / backs up what’s been taught in class’. My experience of primary homework at home is that it is a singular cause of family argument.
In some schools, homework is a competitive sport for a few parents and the work done at home bears absolutely no resemblance to that done in the classroom.
At the same time, homework can also be particularly dispiriting for those that come from a very disadvantaged background. Parents may be working long shifts at difficult times of the day. There may be little space, and there may be very little quiet space. If something is important, it should be taught at school – including building resilience and independent learning skills.
Schools are fantastic places when parents engage with their children’s learning. This is one of the golden keys to success in schools where there are many children from disadvantaged backgrounds – where parent value-added takes more time to craft. But sometimes what we as parents believe to be intuitively true needs to be put right by professionals.
A significant proportion of parents would, I suspect, believe that ability grouping, small class sizes and homework are highly effective in raising attainment. The evidence suggests otherwise. Teachers battling away to ensure children complete homework – and then getting it marked – might not be the best use of their time. The time might be better spent planning for and evaluating the impact of their teaching each day.
That said, many things may work well in individual cases. Ability grouping and homework in particular are present in many successful primary schools. That may or may not help raise attainment in those schools – but I certainly think it is work a closer look.
So what could be done? I don’t think primary homework is going to go away. But more could be done to find out about best practice.
As the EEF report suggests, homework that is set in short, sharp and focussed bursts, with clear success criteria based on learning that has taken place in the classroom, might be a start: to provide an assessment of whether what’s been learned in school has been learned in depth. And this could be backed up by pupil premium funded homework clubs where high quality support is in place for those that need it – replicating the opportunities other children get at home. Best practice for parental support for children with SEND provides lots of intelligent approaches too.
Schools could carry out a test and learn approach, with classes doing no homework, the more structured ‘short burst approach’, or just continue as they are. I think a best practice trial would be a brilliant thing for the EEF to lead on, a rich resource to plan future approaches.
A school leader said to me recently, ‘we do homework, but I don’t insist teachers mark it because we really don’t know who’s done the work’. Parents would be better off reading to their children, bouncing with them on a trampoline, or simply lying down with their eight year old and watching the clouds go by.
Marc Rowland is Deputy Director, National Education Trust