New term, an age old battle returns …

Yep, it’s the dreaded H word: Homework. Some like it, some hate it, some wishes it never existed and whoever decided we needed homework should be shot. For some families it can be a flashpoint for tears, tantrums and arguments.

Of course, some parents see homework as a reassuring sign that a school is taking pupils’ academic progress seriously and even base their choice of schools on the amount of homework set. But for others it is another task to stage-manage in the already fraught and busy cycle of family life – and all the more so for primary-age children who are not old enough to take responsibility for completing it unaided.

Prof Sue Hallam, of the Institute of Education at London University, has researched the subject of homework extensively. She believes much of the friction for families is down to increased amounts of formal written school work making its way onto the family kitchen table. “In the past children would be sent home with a spelling list of 10 words and be expected to learn their times tables,” said Prof Hallam. “What is happening now is that children are given written work and that’s where the problem starts – Mum and Dad try to help and of course teaching methods have changed and that can confuse them. Parents get upset and the child gets upset. It is often when homework is formal school work that the problems start at primary level. It’s the kind of homework being set that is some of the problem, I think. You have to put this in a social context – a lot of parents are working and the last thing they want to do after the stress of a day’s work is supervise homework. They want the time they have with their children to be quality ‘nice’ time.”

The current trend for formal primary school homework began in 1998, when the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett, put out voluntary recommendations for schools in England and Wales and offered support for the introduction of homework clubs.

The guidelines suggested pupils in Years 1 and 2 (ages five to seven) should do 10 minutes of homework a night, stretching to 30 minutes a day for pupils in Years 5 and 6 (ages nine to 11).

They recommended pupils in the first year of secondary should be doing up to 90 minutes a night, increasing to up to two and a half hours a night for those studying for their GCSEs (Years 10 and 11).

In her book, Homework: The Evidence, Prof Hallam says that in 1997, 64% of primaries had a homework policy, but just two years later, 90% had policies, including 100% of junior and 75% of infant schools.

Mr Blunkett’s homework guidelines were scrapped in England in March last year by the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove. This does not mean Mr Gove does not believe in homework, rather that head teachers should decide the best approach for their pupils, free from “unnecessary bureaucratic guidance”.

But while this government takes a hands-off approach to homework, the pressure is still on, as Prof Hallam points out. “Primary schools are under pressure to get high levels for pupils at Key Stage 2 (age 11). This government has ratcheted up the number of children that must get these levels or the school can be forced to become an academy,” she says. “Schools will do everything they can to avoid that. Homework therefore is a means of getting children to do more and more work, which will help them achieve the levels they need.”

So as the scrutiny of Ofsted inspections, league tables and forced academisation continues, at least in England, homework is unlikely to be scrapped.

Indeed, for many schools it is an essential way of ensuring pupils achieve their full potential. For example, for the Ark chain of academies, homework is seen as a vital means of raising standards. Amy Baird, head teacher at Ark John Keats Academy primary school in Enfield, London, says: “Even when they are young, children benefit from the chance to practise and embed what they’ve learnt at school. For the youngest children that might be practising phonic sounds with their parents and, as they move up primary school, it’s really valuable to ensure children really understand the mathematics and English that they’ve learnt during the day.”

TIPS FOR PARENTS (Offered by charity Family Lives)

Keep a designated homework area at home
Help keep a routine for your child when it comes to homework
Praise and encourage your child to help boost their confidence
Refrain from completing your child’s homework for them
Allow yourself enough time to help your child with their homework
Use the library
Use after-school homework clubs
Encourage your child by offering a small reward if they complete their homework
Don’t get stressed out by homework – if you are, your child will be too

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