Debate: Should there be homework in primary school?

Pat Fitzpatrick makes the case for homework in primary school, saying there is nothing wrong with doing half an hour a night. 

I’m learning Irish at home at the moment from my five-year-old daughter. She’s in a Gaelscoil and is reading books every night that remind me just how much Irish I have forgotten.

Now, an Oireachtas sub-committee is looking at a petition to bring our nightly cúpla focail to an end. It seems there is a groundswell to abolish homework in primary school.

I’ve seen the reasons behind this.

The strongest one seems to be they don’t have primary school homework in Finland (Why don’t we just solve all our social ills at a stroke, and move this country to Finland?).

Pat Fitzpatrick makes the case for homework in primary school, saying there is nothing wrong with doing half an hour a night.

The other reasons seem to swing between kids being too busy to do other stuff and some research showing that homework doesn’t work for younger kids.

I guess it depends what you mean by work. I’ve heard the horror stories about kids with two hours homework a night, and obviously that isn’t going to work, because daddy needs a glass of wine, but here’s how my daughter’s homework works for us at the moment.

First of all, my wife and I get to play some part in her education, without schooling her at home. Better still, we get to see for ourselves how she is doing at school, without waiting for the next parent-teacher date, or a note in her bag.

I appreciate she’s in junior infants, and, when her 15 minute stint ramps up to an hour over the coming years, I might start losing the will to live, but that’s not a good enough reason to stop.

This is a good habit to get into now, when she’s young, unless you think it’s a good idea to spring something called homework on a 13-year-old ball of hormones, that can’t stand the sight of you. (I doubt your health insurance will cover the response.)

So, what about the research, showing that young kids don’t learn through homework? Well, like most research, there’s another academic, somewhere else who found the opposite.

One of the beauties of being a parent is you get to decide what works for your kids and I think you need to practise things to get them right. I’m learning to play the African drums at the moment. I go to a class for two hours every week and bash away like billy-o, but 30 minutes later I can’t remember a single rhythm I played.

This changed recently, when I had to practise at home for a (thankfully) low-key gig. I’ll never forget those rhythms now. You need to focus on these things, on your own. The same goes for homework.

While some of this can be done in the classroom, I think it’s important for kids to also do a bit at home, at their own pace. In the end, I have one question for people who want to scrap homework: What would you rather the kids do with their time?

Play outside, because we live in Spain and it never rains? Harass you to let them have an hour of Angry Birds on your phone? Take up fencing, because you can never have too many places to drop them after school?

There’s nothing wrong with half an hour of homework. One mother told me yesterday that her son was getting two hours homework a night, until someone had a word with the teacher and it dropped to 30 minutes. It’s not like before, when it seemed that any parent who complained was called in so they could be knee-capped by one of the nuns.

It’s possible to work together now and achieve a bit of balance, but scrapping homework altogether? There’s no balance in that.

Andrea Mara says the research indicates homework for younger students has limited benefit.

Mum, she’s singing again – can you make her stop?” said one child, glaring at her sister.

“What, it’s part of my homework — I have to sing!” came the reply, as innocent eyes met mine. Meanwhile, the youngest was filling his pencil case with Lego to see how much would fit in, while his page of writing homework remained blank.

And me? I was on looking for a bigger house — one that facilitates homework in bedrooms. Because this daily torture, with the four of us sitting around my small kitchen table bickering over elbow-room is just not working.

Does homework have any value? The answer in any given home probably depends on what kind of homework is given, how long it takes, and the concentration levels of the children; I’m conscious that the chaos that ensues in my house every afternoon is not universal, and many parents like that their children have homework.

Andrea Mara says the research indicates homework for younger students has limited benefit.

But personally, I’d be happy to see an end to it, especially for children in their first four years of primary school.

Even for older kids, I think the type of homework given is key.

Reading is great (at any age) — whether it’s at the kitchen table or at bedtime or anytime in between.

Spellings are, I suspect, a necessary element of homework, and basic tables stand to us for life. But do kids gain anything from written homework — filling in worksheets, writing out sentences? I’m not convinced.

If for example, a child is learning about trees at school, this is clearly a very good thing.

If the child retains what she learned, that’s wonderful. If she doesn’t, that’s absolutely fine too — I’m sure she’ll pick it up over time, perhaps by reading about trees herself at some point, or looking at trees when she’s playing outside and connecting with what she learned in school.

Or maybe she’ll never remember any of it because she’ll be busy reading about space or Antarctica or oxbow lakes, and that’s fine too.

But filling out details in worksheets after school — painstakingly writing down names of trees and plants into the correct blank spaces — I don’t know what value that adds. I can’t help thinking she’d be better off outside climbing the trees instead.

My eight-year-old often asks me why school takes up most of the day — what is the point of anything if all you do is go to school?

I explain that school is only five and a half hours a day, but in truth, she’s right — because with homework in the mix, it’s often five o’clock by the time she’s done, and on these dark evenings, it’s too late to get out and play. What is the point indeed?

And I’ve seen it from the other side — on those rare and precious days when there’s no homework.

They’re out on the green, climbing trees, cycling their bikes, running around in fresh air — doing all the things we keep saying Irish kids don’t do enough anymore.

The research on homework is mixed — one US study found that too much homework can cause students to experience “academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives”.

And in The Case Against Homework, authors Bennett and Kalish drew on research to come to the conclusion that “there is almost no evidence that homework helps elementary school students achieve academic success and little more that it helps older students”.

There’s also research from Prof Harris Copper at Duke University that says homework does improve grades in school, but even then, the correlation is greater for older kids. For younger children, there was a very weak link between homework and performance.

In the meantime, I’ve carried out my own research — though admittedly my sample size is small. Of the four of us sitting around my kitchen table, arguing over singing and elbow-room, I can safely conclude that homework isn’t doing any of us any good at all.

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