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Homework – What is it good for?

Homework presents an unusual challenge for parents. It has been a fixture in education since the earliest days of standardised teaching. It has been around for a very long time – the British Museum has an example of a 2000 year old homework book. Like many things that have been around for a long time, it is possible that parents, children and teachers take it for granted that it is still important or necessary.

Homework is not uncontroversial, however:

  • A Stanford study found that 56% of students considered homework to be a “primary source of stress”. They said it led to sleep deprivation problems and left less time for socialising or extracurricular activities;
  • More than a third of parents don’t think homework in primary school is helpful, and 72% think prep work at school would be a better alternative;
  • A study of teachers found that they were split – some viewed homework as essential while others felt there were better ways for children to learn.

This article will look at the advantages and disadvantages of homework for families. It will examine the current NI guidelines on homework, and compare these to countries that are seen as having good education systems. We hope that this will encourage parents, schools and policy makers to consider if alternatives or changes may be warranted.

The Situation in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, there is no specific law regarding homework policy in school. Instead, each school is allowed to set its own homework policy. This policy, once it has been sufficiently developed is to be shared with parents. Homework policies should include things like:

  • How long a pupil is expected to spend on homework per night;
  • What is supposed to happen if children are getting too much;
  • What the school will do if children do not meet the required standard of homework.

A summary of the homework policy of every school is required to be included in their prospectus by the Education (School Information and Prospectuses) Regulations (NI) 2003. This means that prospective students and their parents should have a good general understanding of what will be expected of them with regards to homework at school.

The outcome of this system is that schools have different homework policies and expectations. For example, here are the time and content expectations for two primary schools based in Northern Ireland:

Primary School Example 1 –

P1 – 10 / 15 minutes

Guided Reading, Reinforcement of words taught in school Oral development of initial sounds leading to practise letter formations in Term 2. Phonic activities Activity homework e.g. oral / practical activities

P7 – 45/55 minutes

Independent Reading / Factual Reading, Mental Maths, linguistic phonics / Table facts / vocabulary, Written and learning homework (Mon – Thurs), Occasional homework based on other curricular area



Primary School Example 2

P1 – 15/20 minutes

Daily: Home Learning Activities, Phonics (from start of October), Reading, Maths facts

1 written Literacy or Numeracy homework from Term 2


P7 – 1 hour

Daily: Spelling, Maths Facts, Reading

3 written Literacy or Numeracy homework per week



Equally, the stated purpose of homework at school can vary. However, there tends to be a few generally agreed elements. Most schools include in the “aims” of their homework policies a desire to:

  • Keep parents informed of what students are learning at school;
  • Provide opportunities to reinforce and practice what students learn at school;
  • Encourage independent study among students.

These broadly represent the mainstream viewpoint on homework within Northern Ireland’s educational system. Building a partnership between the teachers/school, the student, and their parents is a key element of many homework policies. This is to be welcomed, but as we have established already, for some parents homework is a source of stress rather than the foundation of a partnership. Meetings between parents and teachers are supposed to explore ways in which parents can best support their child with homework.

The Department of Education runs a campaign called “Give your Child a Helping Hand” which focuses on the important role parents and carers play in improving educational outcomes for children. This is not exclusively aimed at homework but does include a series of tips and strategies for parents to support their child with any work they are required to do at home.

The average amount of homework per day across the UK is 2.5 hours a week, however the NI average around a fifth spending 4 or more hours a week on homework. NI students are also given some of the largest amounts of homework – around 25% are given 4 or more offline pieces of homework a day. A survey in 2018 found that the average time spent by NI children doing homework was 6.3 hours a week, the highest in the UK.

Supporters of homework might point out that the average GCSE and AS/A-Level results in Northern Ireland are the best in the UK. This is the result of a series of educational policies, choices and circumstances however and while homework policies might have an influence, it would be difficult to determine exactly how much.

Alternative Systems

While homework remains a central element of Northern Ireland’s education system, this is not the case in other countries. A notable example is Finland, widely regarded as having the one of the world’s best education systems. While some articles suggest that Finnish children have no homework, this is not exactly the case. Instead, Finnish students have significantly less homework than their American, British or Irish peers. Additionally, they spend less time overall per day in school, and have longer summer holidays. Many experts put the success of the Finish system down to the quality of teaching, and the esteem with which teaching is viewed as a career. Therefore, while less homework is one aspect of the Finnish system, it is not the central component nor the crucial element to explain its success. However, opponents of homework have pointed to the Finnish model as proof that homework is not necessarily required to achieve good educational results.

Some researchers and experts disagree with the idea that homework is not necessary. Prof Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education argues that homework has a strong influence on the success of children in the British educational system. She noted that students who did two to three hours of homework per night were almost 10 times more likely to achieve five good GCSEs than those who did no homework.

One country that has both a successful educational system and has very high levels of homework is Singapore. The country is often rated either top or near top globally for educational outcomes in reading, mathematics and science. The Singaporean system is rigorous – examination and testing is considered a major element and Singaporean students can expect to take several streaming exams to place them into particular types of school starting from the end of primary school.

While school days and academic years are fairly similar to the UK, homework is a much larger element in the system. Singaporean children spend up to 9.4 hours a week on homework by age 15 – compared to the world average of just 5 hours. The system in Singapore produces excellent results, but is also often criticised for putting too much stress on students. An OECD study found that 78% of Singaporean students were afraid of the impact of academic failure on their lives – compared to an average of 54%. In addition, Singapore’s focus on more traditional routine style learning (including lots of homework) has raised questions about the efficacy of the whole system and critics argue that students become very good at taking exams, but not necessarily being creative independent thinkers.

Primary v Secondary

One very important distinction that should be made about homework is between primary and secondary school children. As previously mentioned, there is some evidence that homework being set and done in secondary schools has a positive impact on GCSE results. Research has also found that for older children homework was linked to better test scores and outcomes. Additionally in the NI system, both GCSE and AS/A-Level work often requires independent work at home. Homework can also be seen as useful revision exercises for students who are taking significant examinations.

What about primary level? This is more contested, with some educators arguing that primary school homework does not improve academic outcomes and causes stress to both children and their parents1. In fact, one American research analysis found that for children aged under 11, there was no link between homework and improved academic achievement.

While some schools and parents have argued this should mean no homework ought to be set for primary school children, the issue is more complex. If we consider again the objectives of homework laid out in the homework policies of primary schools, it is clear that at least in Northern Ireland the “point” of homework is not only better test scores. It is meant to engage parents with their child’s learning and provide students an opportunity to develop useful independent study skills. The solution found by many schools and districts that have “done away” with formal set homework is to instead ask that parents and students do other relevant activities at primary level. This might mean reading or other tasks that are related to the work the child is doing in school. Research has found that it is the quality of the task, rather than the quantity that is important for homework.


In the end, there is no easy answer with regards to homework. This is because it cannot be properly removed from the wider educational system and examined without context. While a child in Singapore might benefit a lot from 9 hours of homework, a student in the Finnish system might do worse. When looking at changing and improving educational outcomes and personal development via homework, parents, schools and policy makers should take a careful approach.

Still, there is a strong argument that the current system could be improved. NI students, particularly those in Primary school are being given more homework than their peers in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. We know that this can cause stress, and that outcomes are not necessarily improved by giving them large volumes of work. While it is understandable and reasonable that every school sets its own homework policy, it might be worthwhile for a full review of the current system to take place. That way, parents will know what to expect, and schools will be provided with a yardstick to measure their own homework policies and have access to best practice.

Parent’s Guide: School Transitions

Starting a new school can be a challenging period for parents, children and teachers. The importance of a successful transition (both socially and academically) is significant. It can be a critical factor in the child’s future progress and development (Fabian, 2015). Transitions involve a complex arrangement of different environmental, social and educational factors. It is normal for a child to be worried or excited about starting “big school”. It is also very common for parents to have concerns about their child.

Parents usually have concerns around:

  • Academic adjustment: Will my child settle into new school work? Will they flourish or struggle with the curriculum?
  • Social adjustment: Will my child adjust well to new social interactions and expectations? Will they make friends and “fit in” well?

What research says…

Adjusting to a new environment is an important part of any transition. Parents and children may view these adjustments differently. In a study of Australian parents and children entering primary school, Docket and Perry (2004) found that adults saw adjustment in terms of settling in to a group or interacting positively with teachers. Children, on the other hand clearly identified the importance of rules (and knowing them) as part of starting school.

Children may also be more worried than they need to be. An International study of children progressing to secondary education found that only around half thought the transition would be positive, but after the first year almost 70% said the transition was either “easy” or “very easy” (Water et al. 2014).  

One aspect that teachers have raised that was overlooked by some parents is the importance of a child being well-rested and well-fed before arriving at school (Docket & Perry, 2004). It was not that parents did not feel that children needed good sleep and food before school, but that they may underestimate the degree to which an extra hour of sleep or not skipping breakfast helps children to settle into a new environment.

Communicating with the school…

Teachers and the school generally are allies in the efforts to improve a child’s transition. Teachers, like parents, want children to be happy and to adjust well. Children thrive most when parents, and teachers work in partnership.  Parents should make every attempt to engage with schools and teachers as much as possible, and take their views and expertise into account.  Likewise, schools need to ensure their environments are welcoming and engaging for parents to come into.  Teachers need to know and understand the importance of working in partnership with parents and learn how to work successfully together.

Engaging with schools and communicating with your child/young person can help to make the transition easier for everyone. Children noted they feared that they might lose contact with former friends, get very strict teachers, or be subjected to bullying (Strand, 2019) in a new school environment. In a number of studies children noted significant fears were:

  • Not knowing the new teacher(s)/attitude of the new teacher(s) (Rodrigues et al. 2018, Strand 2019, Docket & Perry 2004);
  • Friends (Fabian 2015, Van Rens et al. 2015, Docket & Perry 2004).

Parents can talk to their child regarding their concerns about teachers. Some of these fears may be exaggerated and can be easily dealt with by reassuring children. Others may benefit from getting the opportunity to speak to teachers before the transition at events like open nights. If your child demonstrates a particular concern about one or more teachers, it may be worth exploring options to speak to them. The vast majority of teachers, even when under immense time pressures want children to feel comfortable in their classes and for their students to have a smooth transition. Partnership working with the school and teachers is an essential element of getting ready for a new school.

Making Friends

When it comes friends, it is beneficial in many cases if a child can transition with a pre-existing friend. However, this is not always possible. If you are concerned about your child’s ability to make new friends or deal with unfamiliar social interactions, paediatric behavioural health specialist Kristen Eastman (2016) gives the following advice:

  • Observe how your child socialises. You may notice behaviours that are holding them back and can gently encourage behaviours that help;
  • Model positive behaviour yourself. Children learn how to socialise in part from watching their parents. Try being more social when your child is with you if possible;
  • Role-play at home. If your child is older, you can talk through how to start conversations and make friends and practice at home. If you struggle with this yourself consider asking a friend or family member;
  • Encourage your child to take part in activities that are social in nature, like sports or clubs;
  • Reinforce and praise positive examples of social activity;
  • Set up opportunities like play-dates if age appropriate;
  • Don’t compare them negatively to more social siblings or yourself.

Helping your child to have strong social skills can dramatically reduce levels of stress in children transitioning to new school environments.

Making the Transition

Parents should take advantage of all opportunities to get to know as much as they can about the school they are sending their child to. The more you know about the school your child will be attending, the less you are likely to stress. If your child sees you as being relaxed about the new school, it may help to reduce their own feelings of unease. Additionally, being able to answer your child’s questions can help to make the transition less difficult. NI Direct provides a range of information regarding schools in Northern Ireland including:

  • Inspection reports;
  • School transport information;
  • How to obtain a school prospectus;
  • Extended services.

It might be a good idea to go through this information with your child. By doing so, you can de-mystify the new school.  You may also want to trial the school journey, particularly if your child is going into a new town or city and travelling by unfamiliar means such as bus or train.  Travelling the route together in advance and considering the options for which paths/ routes to take will help set your child’s mind at rest and will help them have less to be worried about.

Your child (and you) may still feel a level of anxiety, even after taking these precautions. Do not worry, and remember that in addition to the school itself, many support organisations exist that can provide help and advice including Parenting NI.

Build a strong support network around yourself and do not hesitate to seek assistance if you suspect you may need it. Finally, remember that for most children, transition to “big school” is exciting. Embrace the change as best you can, and encourage your child to feel the same.

More Needs to be done to Support Parents in Meeting School Costs

Parenting NI responds to the NICCY consultation outlining the costs to parents of sending children to school.

Muriel Bailey, Director for Family Support Services at Parenting NI said,

“The results of this consultation are worrying – but are sadly not surprising to Parenting NI. The issue of cost has come up time and time again in our own consultations with parents. When asked what the single biggest issue with Northern Ireland’s education system, more than 1 in 10 parents singled out cost.

The fact that most parents are required to pay over £1000, per child per year puts enormous stress on families in Northern Ireland. This is particularly worrying when this is considered in the context of the recently announced cuts to the per-pupil payment to schools, as well as the recent proposed cut to the uniform grant that was narrowly avoided.

In addition to this, the regional differences, where parents in the west are expected to effectively pay a £184 premium compared to parents in Belfast highlights a need for an urgent, balanced and reason-based solution.

There is increasing pressure on parents and on schools to provide the basic necessities needed to attend school. Given the fact that education is meant to be free to access, more simply must be done to support parents who are struggling.

It is self-evident that the simplest and most effective solution would be a locally-elected and locally accountable education minister. Every day of delay simply postpones necessary change. It is for that reason that Parenting NI, speaking on behalf of parents across Northern Ireland, is asking that all political parties come together to address this as a matter of urgency.”

Media Enquiries

Contact Emma Lyttle, Communications Officer at Parenting NI on 028 9031 0891 or email.