At the end of the day, do we really need homework?

Most people assume that those hours of extra study are beneficial.
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When the schools inspector Roger Frost began to write a national report on homework early this year, he wanted to visit a school that, on principle, never set homework. It would be useful for comparisons, he thought. Only he could not find one. None of the local inspectors or local education authorities he contacted could name a single state secondary school that set no homework at all.

When his report, Homework in Primary and Secondary Schools, was published by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) in the summer, it did not mention his fruitless search. But it did say that although most people believe homework leads to higher standards, no hard evidence exists to prove it.

So if homework's efficacy is unconfirmed, why is every school-aged child in the country embarking on another year of evenings and weekends doing it? Homework, say its supporters, enables children to consolidate what they have learnt at school, to cover more work than can be managed in school time, and to do rote learning that otherwise would involve chanting in class. It teaches children to work without supervision, bridges the divide between home and school, and is better than watching television.

And everybody does it. In the past 10 years, since research showed that children who read at home with their parents read better than those who do not, most infants now bring home a book at least twice a week. Formal homework for infants is rare, the Ofsted study found, but seven- to 11- year-olds receive from one to four hours a week. Secondary pupils average six hours a week.

These averages mask wide variations. In general, state school pupils do less homework than private ones, boys less than girls. Pupils working for GCSE do much more than everybody else: three hours a night is not unusual. That makes them even harder-working than the average Hungarian pupils, who top the international homework table with nine hours a week.

American pupils do about the same as British ones - surprisingly, since it is in the US that large-scale studies have shown that children who do regularly marked homework perform better at school than those who do not, even allowing for differences in home background.

A 1990 study of British grammar school boys came to similar conclusions. But it was too narrow to prove the general effectiveness of homework in the British system. And international comparisons are certainly not definitive: Italian children do eight hours homework a week and perform worse than the British in international tests; the Finns do less homework and score better.

Homework, say its detractors, is done at the end of the day, when studies have proved that longer school days do not necessarily increase the amount children learn, and that this is the least efficient time for learning. It can act as a cover for inefficient use of school time; it stifles children's freedom and creativity; it puts too much pressure on them; it causes friction between parents and children.

And not everybody does it. Homework has been associated with privilege for a long time. It began as "prep" in 19th-century boarding schools: something to occupy elite children between supper and bed. It took off in the state grammar schools of the 1920s: a symbol of ascent up the educational ladder. Homework often reinforces class divisions because children in supportive, well-equipped homes get more help. A recent study in Glasgow showed that a school's reputation among parents still varies according to how much homework it is known to set.

The results of parental demands for homework can be appalling. Susie Moore (not her real name) took her six-year-old son Luke away from a north London state primary because his twice-weekly homework worksheets were taking an hour to complete - in addition to half-an-hour's reading a night - and making the family miserable.

"He had so much work it was impossible to do anything nice. He would hide under the table, scream, kick his legs. I felt it was because the school had a very mixed intake, among whom were parents who for very good reasons were educationally ambitious, and the homework was a way of meeting the panic about standards," she says. "It had to be done; if they didn't do it they had the teacher looking down her nose the next morning and humiliating them. At the school he's at now the policy is `homework should never make a child unhappy', which I think is a pretty good baseline."

If the effectiveness of homework in general is unproven, the ineffectiveness of much homework in practice is undisputed. The Ofsted report criticised schools and teachers who set homework but did not mark it, who set unproductive or "finishing off" work that should have been covered in lessons, or who expected children to complete work with resources they lacked at home.

A recent study of secondary pupils in Yorkshire and East Anglia (from which some of the student opinions are quoted in the panel, left) found many pupils spent longer than the minimum on their homework; they particularly liked tasks that fitted being independent and out of school, such as interviewing or project research.

But they resented work which they saw as set simply to fulfil the homework timetable. (Though often not abiding by it: pupils constantly said that teachers set homework when it suited them, regardless of the timetable). A few told the Cambridge researcher Molly Warrington, one of the study's authors, that homework made them feel helpless and in despair.

Most children do their homework; many enjoy it, says Roger Frost. Most schools in developed countries set it, so it cannot be attributed simply to a British historical quirk. Common sense suggests that some of it does some good, some of the time. But if any school out there is managing well without it, he would like to know.

`We have six hours to learn in school. That's enough' John, 13

`If I haven't done it, I say I've left it at home or I felt ill. Those are my two main excuses' Matthew, 11

`If I want to go out and play, I have to do my homework first. I think we should be able to do it afterwards' Olivia, 9

`Parents want it and I give it. Most of them do it. It's that sort of school' Teacher

`You take it home because you can do it in silence, and at school there's always talking' Charlie, 13

`Every teacher seems to say that theirs is the most important, and that it won't take you long, but it will take a long time when you've got all the teachers saying that' Claire, 15


Hotline helps the forgetful - and banishes lame excuses

Excuses for not doing one's homework are a thing of the past at Manningtree secondary school in Essex, where a telephone hotline gives details of all the homework set for every pupil every day.

At 3pm each weekday, Manningtree's office manager, Mary Trimby, collects a sheet of details from every teacher due to set homework that day for pupils in the first three secondary years. She then records the homework set for each class into a "voice mailbox" telephone system. Pupils and their parents can ring the mailbox number from 4pm to find out what homework has been set.

The line regularly receives up to 50 calls a night, according to Manningtree's deputy headteacher, Tony Rivett. He set the system up a year ago, after asking the 170 new l1-year-olds to the school what worried them most in their first week.

"What most concerned them was going home and finding they hadn't written down their homework in their diaries. Children come to us from 19 different primary schools, and they've all had different experiences of homework. The reality of secondary school is that teachers often put the homework information on the board in the last part of the lesson, the children panic when they find they haven't written it down, then they phone each other up and get garbled messages."

Initially the school recorded all homework on a single answerphone message. Then a local newspaper group offered it a share in a system called Info Connect. This involves splitting a single phone line into 40 separate lines, each of which can contain a different message - rather like a wall of bulletin boards.

Now there are separate numbers for the first three years of pupils at the school and for GCSE coursework deadlines for older pupils. The school provides each parent with a list of the numbers; these are dialled after first calling the main number, which has an introductory message. The lines also have a security code to prevent tampering.

As well as the homework hotlines, there are lines dedicated to welcoming parents of new pupils, and several for school activities, emergency messages and important dates. Lines are open 24 hours a day and are charged at local rates: a three-minute call costs 5p. Each mailbox costs pounds 2 a week to rent; at present Manningtree's lines are sponsored by a local company and the school pays nothing.

In the United States, where homework hotlines are common, the calls are free. Up to a million have been recorded to lines run by huge schools in Kansas. Studies in the US have shown that homework completion and parental involvement in school both surge when hotlines are introduced.

In Essex the improvement has been marked, but more low-key, says Mr Rivett. "Children don't waste our time making feeble excuses, like the cat ate it or Grandad wrapped his chips in it. They know that we'll say there's the homework hotline, you could have rung and found out what to do. I don't have parents phoning me to complain that no homework has been set. And I know that homework is being set, because staff know they have to have it ready by three."

Whether the hotline improves standards at the 11-16 school is another question, he adds. But it reassures anxious children, smooths organisation and keeps parents in touch. All those are worthwhile achievements in themselves, so much so that Manningtree's next innovation is likely to be putting homework details on a local teletext system.

Then when the children come home from school and switch on the television, they can say that they're just checking up on their homework ...


How to help your child with homework

Let your child get over the school day - don't nag as soon as you see them.

Ensure that they have a peaceful (but not necessarily silent) room and a clear surface. Younger children may need company and encouragement to enjoy their work.

Help them to plan their time; suggest short spells of work rather than a long stretch.

Help them to establish a routine.

Keep reference books together and accessible. Be sure you have pencils, rulers, etc, so there can be no excuses.

Try to fit family activities around their homework, so they aren't left out while everyone else is having fun.

Be consistent: if you insist today, then you must tomorrow

Tell the school at once and often if work is not marked, taking too long or is set on unsuitable nights.

Offer help, but don't take over or insist; it is their homework, not yours.