A report published yesterday by the Office for Standards in Education says that schools need to focus on the quality rather than the quantity of the homework that they set.
Ministers have for the first time set national guidelines on the amount of homework pupils should do, rising from 20 minutes a day for five-year- olds to two-and-a-half hours a day for 16-year-olds. And parents and teachers are convinced of homework's value, says the study, which draws on a review of research carried out over the last decade.
But the report Homework: Learning from Practice points out that: "It is very difficult to identify a clear homework effect separate from the influence of ... factors such as home and family background which are themselves commonly associated with achievement."
Later, it adds: "Frequency of homework or amount of time spent are relatively crude measures and do not address the issue of quality."
Research does not tell us, says the report, what sort of homework is most effective but a clear link with schoolwork, a strong partnership with parents and proper setting and marking of work may all play a part.
Findings from the most recent international study, the Third International Maths and Science Survey, suggest that those children who do moderate amounts of homework tend to do a little better than those who spent either a lot of time or very little studying at home.
English primary school children spend less time on homework than their peers in other countries but the difference is much less for secondary pupils, according to the survey, which was carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research. The Ofsted report, by Penelope Weston, who was formerly a researcher at the foundation, involved a telephone survey of 227 primary and 141 secondary schools as well as 29 case studies.
Mrs Weston says that schools need to decide on a clear definition of homework and communicate it to parents. "Perhaps too much has been taken for granted - for example that all those involved share a common understanding of what homework is."
Homework, she points out, has changed over the past 30 years. It is no longer the series of clearly defined exercises from text books that most parents remember.
Instead, it may include research, interviews, observing, tape-recording or word- processing. One primary school suggested that "homework could be any activity which will encourage the social skills of sharing and co-operation".
There is debate, too, about the role of parents.
While most primary schools encourage parents to help with homework, secondary schools are anxious to promote independent study. One secondary school asked a feeder primary school to tell parents of 10 and 11-year-olds not to help their children with homework.
Some teachers argued that it was unfair for schools to set homework which requires parental help or advice because many pupils may receive no help at home.
The new face of homework, one junior school's definition:
weekly learning of tables;
weekly learning of spelling;
reading to a family member;
family visits to museum, farm etc;
completing "topic" assignments at weekends or in holidays;
activities such as sport, clubs, Cubs, dancing or choir;
musical instrument practice;
extra-curricular activities at schoolReuse content