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Does homework have any benefits for primary school children? Jen Hogan and Dr Leah O’Toole discuss

Homework is an emotive and divisive issue among parents and children. The evidence doesn’t support traditional approaches

The Debate

Jen Hogan: Homework instils unhealthy work and play habits

There’s a notable change in the mood in this house since homework returned. (The kids aren’t that impressed either.) Goodbye free and easy evenings of summer; we’re back to the days of kitchen table battles, once again instilling unhealthy work, rest and play habits in our children, as the single worst thing about school takes hold.

I know I’m not alone. Years of campaigning against homework has led to countless discussions with other parents and teachers who would also like to see an end to this most miserable of tasks. With studies – including one carried out by Duke University, Sydney – showing no strong links between homework and academic achievement in primary school, one would have to wonder why we’ve allowed it to continue at all.

At best, homework appears to make little to no difference to a primary schoolchild’s academic performance. At worst it is counterproductive, creating a negative association with education and learning. But we Irish are sticklers for tradition, and appear loath to let it go.

As adults, we often grapple with the difficulties of finding and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. And though many of us work beyond the hours we should, this is not something to be advocated. You’re unlikely to hear anyone tell an adult “do you know what you should do after a day’s work? You should go home and do some more”. And yet here we are, telling children who are focusing and sitting and concentrating for large parts of their day that they should go home and do some more.


Play is children’s work. That is what we should be advocating and that is what we should be facilitating.

Consolidation is often an argument in favour of homework, and yet research does not back this up. For a child who has already grasped a concept, doing more in the evening feels largely like “going through the motions”. For the child who hasn’t grasped a concept, it’s even worse. Trying to do so after a long day in school, when the child is tired, and maybe even cranky, is never going to be the best time to go at it again. The phrase “flogging a dead horse” springs to mind.

If teachers were freed up from the time they spend allocating and correcting homework, there would be more time to revisit the concepts being studied – only this time there would be continuity to the way it’s taught.

Keeping on top of what our children are learning, and any difficulties they may be encountering, can coexist with a no-homework policy. The apps we became so familiar with during Covid, such as Aladdin, can be put to good use with a very brief weekly update. The copybooks and workbooks could come home at weekends for parents to browse.

Reading is a given. Every parent wants their child to read, and ideally for pleasure so that they’ll choose to do it more. And there is more to learning than formal academics and yet an ability to support formal academics in informal ways. Learning life skills, having time to do the things that float your boat, and having precious family time matters. As does wellbeing – the actual things children can do to support their wellbeing, rather than writing about those things in the workbook, for homework.

In Ireland one in six adults has difficulties with literacy. One in four has difficulties with maths. That’s a lot of households where parents struggle to support their children with homework, causing embarrassment, shame and further stress. For children with additional needs, the stress of homework can be unbearable for the child and family. Not every child has a suitable home environment for homework. And not every child experiences family life and its complexities and commitments the same way. Blinkered privilege often sees us oblivious to the challenges others may face. “Pull the ladder up Jack, sure mine are grand”, just doesn’t cut it any more.

Dr Leah O’Toole and Dr Joan Kiely: If homework is to have a role, it needs to be reinvented

When it comes to research on homework, there is such a range of evidence, both positive and negative, that conceivably it would be possible to champion any opinion.

The positive impacts of homework include inculcation of good study habits and skills, improved self-directed learning, and increased parental involvement in children’s education. There is also evidence that homework can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion for children, and denial of recreation time.

Homework can cause confusion for children because teachers and parents can interpret tasks differently, and sometimes parents over-assist with homework, limiting children’s independent learning. It can reinforce disparities in achievement because children experience different levels of support at home. This can be misinterpreted by schools as lack of interest by some parents, without acknowledging the differing pressures on some families in terms of poverty, lack of quiet space to work, lack of time due to work or other caring duties, or lack of capacity for some parents based on their own educational levels. There is evidence of significant stress caused by homework to children and parents alike, and some writers talk about the “colonisation of the home” by homework. Significantly, many of these studies were done with older children, and homework in the primary years is under-researched.

A few years ago, as part of a larger study of parental involvement in children’s education, we investigated experiences of homework in primary schools in Ireland. It proved to be a highly emotive and contested issue. One of the potential benefits of homework identified was the creation of links between home and school, allowing parents to understand what their children were learning, and how well (or not) they were managing. However, homework was associated with considerable stress for children and parents in our study, regardless of children’s dispositions or academic abilities.

Considering the fact that homework felt mostly stressful to parents, we argued that it does not support positive parental involvement in children’s learning and may not be the best tool for schools to make links with homes. Homework set was often incongruent with practical reality, in its type, amount, purpose and time limits. Choice was crucial in the effectiveness of homework, but it was rare for children to be asked their views. When children were offered choice in the format of homework (for example, showing knowledge of the same topic through a written submission, a verbal presentation or a visual/arts-based creation) or when to do it (for example, a submission at the end of the week with homework done on days that suited them), children’s motivation and learning improved. Stress for both children and parents also reduced.

We supported schools to trial alternatives to traditional homework, including dialogic story-reading, games and oral-language activities like practising weather reports or interviewing grandparents. Children loved this type of homework and highlighted its playful nature as well as the choice provided. Parents also reported that this homework was more enjoyable and less stressful, although they did note that it still took up a lot of their time. Recommendations from our study included increased guidance on homework at a national level, a review of school homework policies, incorporation of more playful, fun activities into homework, and more choice for children.

We encouraged schools when setting homework to consider the demands on children’s and parents’ time, and the importance of free play, particularly outdoors, for learning and development. This becomes even more crucial the younger the child, and we suggested removing homework altogether for junior-infant classes except for story reading.

So overall, when it comes to homework, like many things in education and in life, it isn’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

Dr Leah O’Toole is assistant professor in early childhood education at Maynooth University and Dr Joan Kiely is head of early childhood education at Marino Institute of Education

Ten ways schools are reinventing homework

1. Mindfulness Mondays (The only homework given is mindfulness practice)

2. Homework set at beginning of week and the child decides when to do it

3. Homework choices given

4. Homework differentiated according to children’s needs

5. Physical exercise homework only during the Active Schools Programme

6. Teddy Bear homework – bring home Teddy and record his adventures with the family

7. Child teaches something they learned at school at home to their family

8. Oral language exercises such as interviewing a family member or playing language games

9. Reading for pleasure programme. Reading only homework

10. Project – based and cross-curricular homework