It's the bane of many children’s lives. It’s often the bane of many parents’ lives. And it can often have quite a disruptive effect on the family as a whole. So, why do our kids get given homework? Claire Byrne was joined by Barbara Ennis, Principal of Alexandra College in Dublin and Jen Hogan, parent and columnist with The Irish Times, to answer this question. Barbara kicked the discussion off with why she thinks homework is important – but only homework that’s purposeful:

"Homework in my view has to have a very specific purpose and that purpose should be to assess whether the student has understood what has been done in the class the day of the homework. So, I wouldn’t say that any student really loves homework, but I think all students see it as a necessary part of their education and it’s really down to the teacher to make sure that the homework has a purpose. A specific purpose."

Claire wanted to know if Barbara thinks that homework is a necessary part of pupils’ education. That’s where some equivocation entered the discussion, with a differentiation being made between primary and secondary pupils and their homework burden:

"Well, at second level, I definitely would. I can see an argument at primary level for it not being as important, however the worry that I would have with the idea of parents being able to opt their child out of homework is that they might be disadvantaging their own child against other children who are doing their homework."

Jen Hogan has said that homework encroaches on limited and precious family time and has also said it’s unhealthy when it comes to work-life balance. She has the stats to back up her opinion that homework is not as valuable as some people – both teachers and parents – consider it to be:

"There’s been countless studies carried out at this stage, Claire, that show that homework for primary schoolchildren in particular has little to no academic benefit. And that’s presuming that’s your only focus – academic benefit for children. But the research suggests there’s very little benefit at all and at best it makes no difference, at worst, it’s even counterproductive, kind of distilling this dislike of education from an early age and that negative association of homework with school."

At best it makes no difference. What a conclusion. Jen went on to compare student life with professional life:

"We would not turn around to any adult and say, 'Do you know what you should do after a full day’s work? You should go home and do some more work at home.’ I know it happens, but it’s not something we’re encouraging. And yet we’re saying to children who are sitting in quite an abnormal situation for them where they’re having to sit, focus, concentrate, to go home and do more homework."

There seems to be the beginnings of agreement on homework being less than necessary at primary level, but what about second level? Is it ever right that some children in secondary school spend two to three hours a night doing homework? Barbara doesn’t think so:

"No, I don’t think so. I don’t think any child should ever have to spend that amount of time on homework... So, I would agree with Jen that, you know, spending two-and-a-half, three hours on your homework before fifth year is far too long."

But, asks Claire, from 5th year on it’s fine?

"Well, if they don’t spend that amount of time on their work, they’re not going to cover their course and they’re not going to be at the same advantage as those students who do spend that amount of time on their homework."

Barbara tends to agree with Jen’s opinion that schools have far too much of a focus on academic work. When Claire raises the point that parents often have to get involved in their children’s homework after a long day at work, if often causes stress at home. Barbara accepts that these things happen, but also sounds a warning:

"Parents’ attitudes to any kind of schoolwork is very formative when it comes to the student. So like, for example, in Transition Year, if a parent says, ‘Oh, it’s a doss year,’ then the child is going to see it as a doss year. Whereas, if the parent is enthusiastic about and says, you know, ‘There’s lots of opportunities for you to develop yourself, you know, to go outside your comfort zone, learn new things, experience new things,’ you know the student will have a positive attitude."

Similarly, if the parent isn’t positive about homework, the student will find it hard to be positive about it. But Jen stresses the fact that doing homework because we’ve always done homework is not a valid way to educate our children. When parents get involved, as they often have to do, particularly with primary schoolchildren, it can make for uncomfortable weekday family life:

"Life has changed beyond recognition. There isn’t always somebody at home, so this is often being done later in the evening when really wind-down time should be happening, when really those limited opportunities to do the things that are important to families, important to children, even things like learning life skills, those opportunities are taken away from us when we have homework and all for little to no benefit."

It’s not the case that all teachers are mad keen on homework and all parents thunder against it, though. Jen has spoken to a lot of teachers in primary school who don’t agree with homework but feel pressure from parents to give their students homework:

"Sometimes parents see homework as the measure of the school or the measure of the teacher – completely incorrectly and without understanding – and there is a fear, it’s very hard to walk away from that tradition and to change a tradition that’s so strongly recognised and felt in our education over the years."

I think the conclusion is that we’ve maybe made some progress, but... it looks like we need to bring it home and do some more work on it.

You can hear Claire’s full conversation with Barbara and Jen by going here.