Spending more than two hours a night doing homework is linked to achieving better results in English, maths and science, according to a major study which has tracked the progress of 3,000 children over the past 15 years.
Spending any time doing homework showed benefits, but the effects were greater for students who put in two to three hours a night, according to the study published by the Department for Education.
The finding on homework runs counter to previous research which shows a "relatively modest" link between homework and achievement at secondary school.
The academics involved in the latest research say their study emphasises what students actually do, rather than how much work the school has set.
Pam Sammons, a professor of education at Oxford University, said that time spent on homework reflected the influence of the school – whether pupils were expected to do homework – as well as children's enjoyment of their subjects.
Sammons said: "That's one of the reasons Indian and Chinese children do better. They tend to put more time in. It's to do with your effort as well as your ability.
"What we're not saying is that everyone should do large amounts, but if we could shift some of those who spend no time or half an hour into [doing] one to two hours – one of the reasons private schools' results are better is that there's more expectation of homework."
The study controlled for social class, and whether pupils had a quiet place in which to do their homework, but still found a benefit, Sammons said.
The research was conducted by academics from the Institute of Education, Oxford and Birkbeck College, part of the university of London. It has tracked around 3,000 children from pre-school to the age of 14.
It also finds that students who reported that they enjoyed school got better results. "This is in contrast to findings during primary school where 'enjoyment of school' was not related to academic attainment," researchers said.
Schools could ensure children had a better experience by improving the "behavioural climate", making schoolwork interesting and making children feel supported by teachers, Sammons said.
The research shows that working-class parents can help their children succeed "against the odds" by having high aspirations for them.
Children who did well from disadvantaged backgrounds were backed by parents who valued learning and encouraged extra-curricular activities. "Parents' own resilience in the face of hardship provided a role model for their children's efforts," the research says.
The study underlines the importance of a good primary school. Children who attended an "academically effective" primary school did better at maths and science in later life. The study did not find a link with performance in English.
Ministers have scrapped guidelines setting out how much homework children should be set amid criticism that it can interfere with family life.
Under the last government, guidance was issued to all schools recommending they have a policy on homework.
The guidelines suggested children aged five to seven should be set an hour a week, rising to half an hour a night for seven- to 11-year-olds. Secondary schools were encouraged to set up to two and a half hours a night for children aged 14-16.
Scrapping the guidelines frees headteachers to set their own homework policy, the government says.
As kids return to school, debate is heating up once again over how they should spend their time after they leave the classroom for the day.
The no-homework policy of a second-grade teacher in Texas went viral last week, earning praise from parents across the country who lament the heavy workload often assigned to young students. Brandy Young told parents she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking students instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early.
But the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial, and plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried their kids are losing a potential academic advantage. Here’s what you need to know:
For decades, the homework standard has been a “10-minute rule,” which recommends a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. Second graders, for example, should do about 20 minutes of homework each night. High school seniors should complete about two hours of homework each night. The National PTA and the National Education Association both support that guideline.
But some schools have begun to give their youngest students a break. A Massachusetts elementary school has announced a no-homework pilot program for the coming school year, lengthening the school day by two hours to provide more in-class instruction. “We really want kids to go home at 4 o’clock, tired. We want their brain to be tired,” Kelly Elementary School Principal Jackie Glasheen said in an interview with a local TV station. “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”
A New York City public elementary school implemented a similar policy last year, eliminating traditional homework assignments in favor of family time. The change was quickly met with outrage from some parents, though it earned support from other education leaders.
New solutions and approaches to homework differ by community, and these local debates are complicated by the fact that even education experts disagree about what’s best for kids.
The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.
Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement—test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.
Despite the weak correlation between homework and performance for young children, Cooper argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. Second-graders should not be doing two hours of homework each night, he said, but they also shouldn’t be doing no homework.
Not all education experts agree entirely with Cooper’s assessment.
Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, supports the “10-minute rule” as a maximum, but she thinks there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school.
“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”
Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, thinks there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks, and she supports efforts to eliminate homework for younger kids.
“I have no concerns about students not starting homework until fourth grade or fifth grade,” she said, noting that while the debate over homework will undoubtedly continue, she has noticed a trend toward limiting, if not eliminating, homework in elementary school.
The issue has been debated for decades. A TIME cover in 1999 read: “Too much homework! How it’s hurting our kids, and what parents should do about it.” The accompanying story noted that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a push for better math and science education in the U.S. The ensuing pressure to be competitive on a global scale, plus the increasingly demanding college admissions process, fueled the practice of assigning homework.
“The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much,” Cooper said. “You can go back to the 1970s, when you’ll find there were concerns that there was too little, when we were concerned about our global competitiveness.”
Cooper acknowledged that some students really are bringing home too much homework, and their parents are right to be concerned.
“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” he said. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”