Are primary school pupils really being stressed out by too much homework?

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This is what my eight-year-old daughter had to do for homework last week: answer a set of questions on telling the time, draw up a top 10 list of what we can do to save the environment, and complete a chart of words that have the "ee" sound.

Is this too much? Does it stress her out? The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) thinks so and has called for a ban on homework in primary schools. The National Union of Teachers, Britain's biggest teaching union, will debate a similar motion next week.

According to the ATL, teachers are under pressure to provide homework because of the Government's love of targets and testing, when in reality it's a pointless exercise. "I think a lot of homework is a waste if time," says Dr Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary. "It puts a huge amount of stress on disadvantaged children."

Her argument is that children from educated homes are at a distinct advantage when it comes to homework because they are more likely to get support at home. Their parents talk to them about their homework, ask them if they have done it and help them if they are finding it boring or difficult.

"Disadvantaged children do not necessarily have the extra learning support that the middle-class children have and consequently it doesn't tell you much about the relative abilities of different children," says Bousted.

The unions' concern about the stress that English children are subjected to in general is supported by the United Nations Children's Fund, and an inquiry by Cambridge University into primary education, which suggest that younger children are unhappy and anxious.

Is this really true?

At my daughter Ruby's school, Brookfield Primary in north London, helping your child with homework is part of the school/parent agreement that all parents are asked to sign. Ruby gets an assignment every Thursday and hands it in the following Tuesday. "I think homework is good," she says, "because you have to keep your mind working."

All Year 3 children have a homework folder. Weekly homework includes literacy and maths, tasks linked to a current topic, such as the environment, and regular reading. Parents are encouraged to write comments about each assignment, and the children rate the homework by circling a smiling or grumpy face. Last week, Ruby's homework took her about an hour and a half – not including the time spent trying to get her to do it. This is exactly the time required under the government guidelines for pupils in Year 3 and 4.

How things have changed. In the Seventies I attended the same primary school as Ruby and was given no homework at all until the last two years. I remember receiving textbooks and being assigned a certain exercise to do in maths but I don't remember it being difficult.

By contrast, today's children are doing homework at a younger age and parents are expected to help. And this is where the real stress begins, according to the parents I talk to.

"I felt pressurised over my daughter's homework when she started Year 2," says one parent whose daughter attends a London church primary school. "It was terrible. She had to learn spelling words like 'lifebuoy'. When is a six-year-old going to need to spell that? I understand schools are under pressure because of SATS and league tables, and reading and spelling is fine, even some times tables; but the jump from Year 1 to 2 left me in shock."

At Brookfield, the school has a new homework policy to help parents understand what is being set and why. It is also a way to standardise homework in a school with 14 classes of 30 children, ranging in age from five to 11. The policy urges parents to make homework a positive experience, bearing in mind that making mistakes is essential in order to learn.

"Homework is incredibly controversial," says Dilys Hillman, Brookfield's head teacher. "Parents used to complain that there was too little or too much, that it was too hard or too easy. People have different ideas of what children should be doing at primary school. Some are anxious about academic standards, others are more interested in the development of the whole child. We have a nice balance now and it's meaningful because it's related to what they are doing in class."

Right on cue a group of Year 4 children walk into the head's office with examples of their homework. Archie Jones has a model village he's made of grass-roofed houses on stilts because he's been learning about India. It took him an hour to research the village on the internet and three hours to build the model. "My mum helped with a bit of the building but it was my idea," he says. Classmate Bonnie Russell has made a model rickshaw, while Rosie Watson has photographed a friend making chapattis.

What do they think of the idea that homework should be banned? "Yes!" says Archie punching the air; but others aren't so sure. Classmate Charlotte Graham says: "My dad would get cross because he got tons when he was a child and thinks I should too." They agree the best homework is fun and creative, and there is no mistaking the pride they feel in their projects.

Year 6 pupil Jack French thinks homework is a good way for parents and children to bond. "Mine don't sit next to me but they are there to help," he says. "It also means you don't forget your topic. It helps you to practise and remember."

Jack begins secondary school this year and expects to get homework every day. He insists he has no stress about doing homework, unless he leaves it to the last minute and has to rush.

Those who do get anxious can join Brookfield's homework club, which runs for an hour and a half every Thursday after school. Attendance varies but it is aimed at juniors and around a dozen go each week.

"My daughter Kesem goes to homework club every week, which means she finishes it on the day it is set," says Brookfield parent Lyn Iglinsky. Kesem likes having older children around to help, and enjoys being with children who aren't in her own class. "For her it's a social event," says her mother. "Although I suppose then it's school work and not home work."

Learning at home is an essential part of good education, according to the Government, and gives parents the opportunity to engage with their children's education. The emphasis on homework is something that New Labour has embraced and pressure to increase the amount of set homework began in 1997 under New Labour's first Education Secretary David Blunkett. For the first time guidelines were published outlining the amount of homework to be set for four- to 16-year-olds. But the guidelines are exactly that – guidelines – and are not compulsory, unless a school decides to set homework, in which case they have the right to make it compulsory.

So if homework is not compulsory, what happens if a child doesn't do it? That is up to the school, but in some cases children may miss playtime or part of lunchtime to do the uncompleted work, which means they miss out on fresh air and exercise to do something that isn't required by law.

The jury is still out on whether homework does any good. In a study published in 2007, the American academic Alfie Kohn claimed that too much after-school study turns pupils off education and causes family rows. He also claimed it does nothing for test scores. An international survey has corroborated this, showing that the Finns, who do less homework than Britons, score higher in international tests. The Italians, who do more homework than we do, actually score lower in the tests.

On the other hand, if done correctly, homework assignments can impart independent learning skills, ensure pupils do not forget what they have learnt, and improve performance in subjects such as maths.

But this is only the case if the children do the work, not their parents. Some mums and dads are so keen to help their children that they do the homework for them. One mum at another London primary school recalls her child being asked to build a mobile showing the solar system. "There I was helping her do her homework and thinking, actually I'm the one doing this." But the child was only four, and she couldn't cut out planets. "She could colour them in, but I had to string them together. On the way to school it was windy, the whole thing got tangled and she ended up in tears."

Ruby had similar homework last year when the class were asked to build a tower. My heart sunk at the thought of the entire weekend being consumed by this. I decided she needed experience of independent learning and left her to her own devices. On Monday morning the other children came in with gloriously wobbly towers, but Ruby had produced nothing. While I hung my head in shame, she sat there unperturbed. So who's really stressed out by homework?

Government guidelines

Years 1 and 2

One hour a week.

Reading, spelling, other literacy work and numbers.

Years 3 and 4

One and a half hours a week.

Literacy and numeracy, with occasional assignments in other subjects.

Years 5 and 6

Half an hour a day.

Continued emphasis on literacy and numeracy, but also ranging across the curriculum. In addition, the Government recommends that, on days when homework is something other than reading, children should be encouraged to read on their own or with others for at least 20 minutes.