The Homework Burden – why homework isn’t always the answer for staff or pupils

Hi all, I’m Yas. I’m an ex Literacy Lead and Subject Leader of English, and I’ve been working in the realm of education for over a decade. My love of education has always been driven by my love of reading (my current reading streak has been going strong since January 1st 2022!). Though I’m no longer tied to the classroom day to day, my heart is still very dedicated to education and exploring the ways we can make the lives of young people better.

Imagine working a 7 hour work day with constant mental stimulation, not a minute to yourself, and just a quick couple of breaks to get you through it. You finally get home, kick off your shoes, and… take yet more work out of your bag.  This is the reality many children face after a long day at school and maybe it’s time we started to look at homework of a different kind.

There is an age-old argument that schools are places which not only educate future generations but also get them ready more practically for the adult world. Pupils wear a uniform because we encourage them to take pride in themselves and their professional appearance (as an aside here: with the rise of working from home the argument for uniforms is splitting at the seams), we have rules which teach pupils the importance of collaboration and how to be kind and empathetic. These are all cornerstones to a well-rounded education but we now need to ask: where does homework sit in this? No one wants to come home after a long day and do more work.

The well-being clash

Honestly, when I was in the classroom I was never a fan of setting homework but I did it because it was an expectation of me and one that had never really been challenged. I couldn’t help it; I just didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe that going home and spending an obligatory 30 minutes on a task which was done begrudgingly was going to make that much difference to my pupils. I had spreadsheet trackers, homework pre-planned weeks in advance and a really clear schedule for all of my classes. It was exhausting keeping on top of it and I wasn’t even the one doing it. Ironically, one of the most prominent professions to take home work after a workday (without overtime) is teaching.

Historically, we’ve viewed homework as an extension of the classroom but is a crumpled worksheet with 10 sums the best extension of the classroom we can do? We should be encouraging our young people to develop their personal interests and their interpersonal skills when they’re not in the classroom.

The parent-trap

In 2018, Ofsted surveyed the views of around 1,000 parents in England regarding educational issues and the report noted that, for many parents, homework had a negative impact on family life, and was a significant source of stress. It can often be a significant source of stress in the classroom too. Since the events of COVID lockdowns, I would anecdotally have to say this pressure has only gotten worse.

Quality over quantity

For me, the heart of the issue lies very much in the quality of the homework, over the quantity. Do we need to set a weekly piece of homework for each subject because it’s on a timetable that’s existed since 2002? Probably not. I’d much rather my students went home and spent the time they would be doing homework on reading a book, socialising with their family, or going out exploring so that they were tired enough to head to bed at a decent time and wake up fresh for the following school day. I’d rather that they get excited about projects which break the monotony of a regimented weekly homework sheet and experience something new and awe-inspiring.

Research from The Education Endowment Foundation shows that, on average, homework has a positive impact on the progress made by primary aged pupils of 3+ months, and for secondary pupils it’s 5+ months. This is under the proviso that homework is purposeful, linked to the work being done in class and is fed back on. With the strain and pressure on teachers, I’m here to say, it’s not always feasible to do everything and sometimes the one thing that can ‘give’ is homework.

A time and place

Now don’t get me wrong, I know there are going to be instances where homework is integral and necessary. Learning to read is one of the most important (and for some pupils the hardest) skill a young person can acquire and this must absolutely be supported both in and out of school hours. Similarly, pupils studying for their all important GCSEs will benefit from extra hours of practice and revision in the run up to their exams. We shouldn’t cancel homework altogether but the unnecessary setting of homework – and the battles that ensue when it’s not done – only serve to take away from the importance of homework set when it is necessary.

The alternatives

When research from The Education Endowment Fund shows metacognition and self-regulation can add 7+ months on progress or that reading comprehension strategies can add 6+ months on progress an average, homework starts to pale a little in comparison.

We can begin to picture homework outside of the strict format of a worksheet or a weekly essay. Let’s set our young people reading challenges, encourage them to develop hobbies and pursue interests or even spend time focussing on mindfulness and well-being to come back to school feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another day of learning. The benefits for educators could be monumental in both time and energy to be more present in the classroom and do what they do best: teach.

The Big Picture

Now, for as long as schools exist homework is likely to exist in some form but that shouldn’t mean staff and pupils should shoulder the homework burden. This isn’t an entire dismissal of the homework system but rather a call to find more of a balance. Let’s focus on the meaningful learning, having time to socialise and creating curious and inspired minds.

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