When should children start homework and should they be doing it at all?

Homework can be an emotive subject. For some, that feeling of Sunday night dread (when you’d left it to the last possible moment) never properly leaves us. Still creeping up in waves of panic like an irrational fear, or returning to us in nightmares. For others, one too many excuses about peckish dogs brings back memories sparking guilt or regret. When our own children start school, the nightmares can quickly turn into nightly battles that often end with us picking up the pencil in order to get it done. Attention spans are short after a long day at school and homework takes time away from family life. 

In this country homework commonly starts in reception, taking the form of reading. From Year 1 and into Year 2, children are usually expected to complete one to two tasks per week. But parents are questioning if this is too early and ultimately if homework is necessary at all. 

It’s a hot topic at the moment due to a new framework that was introduced in the state system in September. Ofsted has said its inspectors will not assess how homework is being done because schools should decide whether or not they set it for their students. This marks a huge departure in the inspection regime, which previously looked at homework as part of the way it approached the teaching, learning, and assessment of children. 

Independent schools are of course free to set their own policies about homework and the approach is varied. Queen’s Gate Junior School in South Kensington takes the view that homework can be of value, if it’s set in a constructive way. Mr James Denchfield, director of the school says: “It befalls good schools not only to teach well but also to nurture essential learning skills, such as independence, self-motivation and retention of information,” he continues “homework is at its most beneficial when it asks pupils not just to review what they have learnt but to understand why they have learnt it, as they make the leap from specific task to general rule. Well-conceived, purposeful tasks, which draw on pupils’ creativity and demand lateral thinking are the most satisfying to undertake and are the ones which leave the greatest impression in children’s minds.”

The King Alfred School in Golders Green, north-west London takes a more progressive stance. Head of Lower School, Karen Thomas says: “At The King Alfred School we’ve chosen not to set homework for our Lower School students in order to remove undue pressure for our children and their families. Using enquiry as our main pedagogical approach we create enough exciting opportunities in the school day to trigger their curiosity and open the door to learning both in and out of school. We like to keep parents fully informed as to what is happening in the classrooms in order to enable rich conversations at home. Our oldest students have home learning projects in order to prepare them for their transition to the Upper School which is something they themselves requested.”

Ofsted’s 2018 report stated that homework is a “huge stress” for families in the UK. Of the parents they collected feedback from, a third felt that it is not helpful for primary school-age children – an opinion that was at the centre of a high profile Twitter debate at the end of 2018. 

The fray in question started when comedian Rob Delaney wrote: “Why do they give seven-year-olds so much homework in the UK and how do I stop this?” Football presenter Gary Lineker typed back, agreeing that children “should be allowed to play and enjoy home life with their -parents without the divisiveness of work they have plenty of time to do at school.” However, Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan weighed in with the opposite opinion. He wrote: “As a nation, we’re falling so far behind educational standards of countries like China, it’s embarrassing.”

The consensus around the world is indeed varied. In Finland, a country that consistently tops global education rankings, children start school at age seven and the homework they receive is minimal, and in some schools, they don’t get any at all. In the New York private system (a city famed for being enslaved to the rat race) homework also starts much later. Most schools begin with play-based learning, only bringing homework into the equation at third or fourth grade.  

But this is not the case in other high-pressured societies. Having previously taught in London, Sophie Helsby is a Grade 1 teacher in an independent school on the outskirts of Tokyo. She feels that the parents in Japan put too much focus on their child’s future success. She says: “In the school I work in, we have to set homework weekly. The parents actually want it and they always ask for more,” she continues, “we do enough at school to support their learning and we want kids to come to school energised and well-rested. I always tell parents that their children need time at home to relax and play, but they don’t really understand that here.”

Academic results are of course a huge factor for parents when they are looking for a school that will be best suited for their child. But thought about whether homework contributes to higher success rates for younger children tends to vary. A 2001 meta-study by the National Foundation for Educational Research concluded that there was “a positive relationship between time spent and outcomes at secondary level” but “evidence at primary level is inconsistent”.

Conor Heaven, a former teacher and Digital Learning Leader at TT Education argues that while homework can have “zero impact”, there’s a difference between homework and home learning. He says: “even from the youngest ages, the one most important thing that should happen every week without fail is reading,” he continues “there are primary schools that have got rid of homework completely. They have seen that they don’t gain any value from it, but reading absolutely would still carry on in this scenario.”

Like or loathe the idea of homework, one thing for sure is the importance of books for young learners. Not only does it help with language acquisition and literacy skills, but it expands children’s imaginations and their understanding of the world. And bedtime stories may just be the antidote to those nightmares about hungry dogs.

Further reading: How parents can support their child’s education