Leading article: Homework does benefit children

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The debate over whether schools should set homework has resurfaced with the imminent publication of a book by the American academic Alfie Kohn, which suggests that homework turns children off education and provokes family rows. He suggests there should be none. "Kids should have the chance to relax after a full day at school," he argues. It is nearly nine years since the Department for Education and Skills - then under David Blunkett - produced its first ever guidelines on homework for schools.

It is a good time to take stock. The DfES recommended 20 minutes per day for four and five-year-olds (10 minutes of parents reading to them and 10 minutes reading on their own or practising sums) and up to two hours for young people taking GCSEs. These guidelines have increased the amount of homework from a low where only 5 per cent of schools set maths homework for nine and 10-year-olds three days a week (compared with more than 80 per cent in most other Western countries). However, the level set by the guidelines still falls way below the amount of homework done before the Second World War when 11-year-olds were spending up to 12 hours a week swotting at home.

A little homework can improve academic performance, but too much can switch a child off from learning. So the Blunkett advice has it about right and Kohn's exhortations for an end to all homework should be resisted. We have witnessed an improvement in literacy and numeracy since 1998 - although there is no proof the rise is connected with homework. Premier League out-of-school clubs for slow learners have, however, improved standards, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research. And the debate over Kohn's book is unlikely to end the story. Experts have disagreed over homework since state education began in 1870.

After "payment by results" was first introduced for teachers in 1883, time spent on homework rose sharply - until an educational journal asked in 1929, "is homework really necessary?". By 1935 school inspectors had moved to restrict homework set for the under 12s until the 1998 guidelines revived the issue again.

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