Jane Bradley: Homework for primary school kids doesn’t add up

An Australian academic has concluded that homework is almost pointless at primary school level. Picture:
An Australian academic has concluded that homework is almost pointless at primary school level. Picture:
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Before they go to high school, kids would get more out of just having fun than they would from studying all the time says Jane Bradley

When I was a kid, I really wanted homework. Yes, I was that geeky. I thought homework seemed like the most grown-up, glamorous, proper schoolgirl thing that could possibly ever happen to me.

Until I started senior school, that was - and discovered that spending my life doing piles of what seemed like fairly pointless, arbitrary exercises night after night was not the best way to spend my time.

At primary school, we were given homework less than ten times: each occasion involved learning spelling for a test a few days later, and all of them happened when I was in the final year or two at the school.

I was fairly decent at spelling, so, disappointingly for me at the time, this homework didn’t even take much effort.

Instead, I spent my childhood playing with friends, building endless Lego constructions and learning skills such as ballet and horse riding, which, while perhaps not the most useful now, were, in retrospect, far more fun than poring over the books every night.

Now, however, things seem to have changed. I can vividly remember sitting in a local cafe when my daughter was just a few weeks old. A mother walked in with two children in school uniform and ordered herself a latte. Her offspring, one of whom, she told me, was five and had only just started P1 earlier that month, both pulled out homework books from their bags and diligently got to work. We got chatting and the woman explained that if they didn’t do it now, they wouldn’t get a chance - or would have to miss something else.

Her older son liked to play with the kids next door after school every night, so unless he got his homework out of the way before they stepped through the door, it would get forgotten - or her son would have to be stopped from joining in the neighbourhood fun. Her daughter was going to Rainbows (for the uninitiated, a younger version of Brownies) later that night, so needed to get her work out of the way first.

Her children attended the same state primary school that my daughter will be going to in just ten months time. I hoped she was exaggerating, or that I caught her on a particularly bad day, when the family had left weeks worth of homework assignments to the last minute. Perhaps they had. Other parents whose children attend the same school insist it is not quite as bad as all that.

But as I looked at my tiny daughter, asleep in her pram, I could not imagine a time when she would be big enough to consider something as grown up as homework - not this much of it, anyway. Now, suddenly, she is merely months away from it, and the idea terrifies me.

Surely she should be running around outside, climbing trees and mixing potions of mud, leaves and birds’ feathers in a hole in the ground, not sitting with her head in a text book until bedtime?

Australian academic Professor John Hattie agrees. His academic analysis of multiple studies into the effects of homework conclude that it is almost pointless at primary school. Numerous education experts, including Dr Friedrich Froebel, who died more than 150 years ago, believe that young children learn best through play, not formal work.

Now, parents and children in Spain have decided that enough is enough and a wider backlash has begun.

The Spanish Alliance of Parents’ Associations has called a homework strike: their children will not be doing any weekend homework for the entirety of November in protest at the ludicrous pressure piled on them.

Spain is the eleventh nation with the most homework out of 63 countries studied in a 2014 education report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - with 6.5 hours a week for a typical 15-year-old, compared to an average of 4.9. In the UK, the study found, we are bang on average.

There are plenty of students who have a worse deal than the Spanish. In Shanghai, China, secondary school students rack up a whopping 13.8 hours of homework a week - that’s almost two hours every day. In Romania, the sixth worst country in the study, teenagers do 7.3 hours every week. My Romanian friend, a teacher, backs that up - her six-year-old daughter has four exercises a week taking up to 20 minutes each - and said she was stunned that a typical 15-year-old worked for just 7.3 hours.

At the start of the new school year, a secondary school in Essex announced plans to scrap the traditional approach to homework, allowing pupils to choose tasks rather than having a set amount of work to be completed.

Meanwhile, in the US, a teacher became an internet legend this year after her letter to parents explaining that she was scrapping homework in favour of “doing things that are proven to correlate with student success” such as eating dinner with family and playing outside, was shared on social media thousands of times.

Of course, not all schools tackle homework the same way. One friend, whose five-year-old son is in P1, is rarely given any homework - nor is he really expected to do it when he is. It would be nice, the teacher says, but not essential. One mother tells me that her eight-year-old is given a fair amount, but usually over the weekend, when there is plenty of time to get it done. Another Scottish parent says his children’s school gives them a list of long-term, optional tasks, which can be skipped if the parents say they were otherwise better engaged with their children in evenings and weekends.

On the other hand, a friend’s six-year-old is given maths and English work to do over the weekend, a times table to learn and a spelling test every Wednesday and is expected to go through three reading books every week. Another parent tells me his seven-year-old daughter is expected to do reading homework every night as well as three homework assignments due two days later. Phew.

Yet, in Finland, which we in Scotland particularly like to look to as the model of all things educational, teens are typically given just two hours of extra work outside school every week. Primary school students possibly even less.

Perhaps I’ve turned into an old hippy, but it does seem that at primary school, they should just be left alone.

It never did me any harm, did it?