It may seem a fairly small part of school life, but homework has been the object of much controversy lately. Last year, a group of Durham University academics found that 11-year-olds who did the most homework gained lower test scores in maths, science and reading than children who were set homework only once a month. The results came after research by academics at King's College, London, who had observed that nine-year-olds who did maths homework once or twice a week did no better than those who tackled it only occasionally.
In spite of this, homework is not going away. On the contrary it is a major part of the Government's drive to raise standards in primary schools and, by September last year, all state schools should have had written home-school agreements which include a statement of what is expected of pupils, parents and teachers. The DfEE has also recently published its own guidelines on the vexed question of homework.
The response to this has often been guarded. In an advisory pamphlet to schools, the National Association of Head Teachers outlined the DfEE guidelines, but emphasised that homework should not prevent children from taking part in sport, music or other activities - nor should it generate vast amounts of marking.
The NAHT also weighs in heavily in favour of quality over quantity.
"The precise amount of time spent on homework is much less important than the quality of tasks set and the way they are planned to support learning," says David Hart, NAHT general secretary, though he considered the DfEE's suggested time allocations "a useful guide to follow". The DfEE recommends an hour a week for five to six-year-olds; 90 minutes for seven and eight-year-olds and 30 minutes a day for 10 to 11-year-olds.
Emphasis is entirely on reading, spelling and other literacy and number work in Years 1 and 2, with other subjects subsequently playing an increasing part after that.
At secondary school level, the Secretary of State recommends between 45 and 90 minutes a day in Years 7 and 8; between one and two hours a day in Year 9 and between 90 and 150 minutes in Years 10 and 11.
In Years 12 and 13, the amount of work depends on pupils' individual programmes.
Homework may be the butt of criticism and controversy, but there is some consensus.
Most parties agree that it should consolidate and reinforce skills and understanding, extend school learning (through additional reading, for example) and, as children get older, develop independent learning skills. It should also involve close collaboration between teachers and parents, especially in primary schools. Parents often have strong ideas on homework and confrontation can be avoided by explaining what tasks are meant to achieve.
But there are more positive reasons why homework can be a useful tool in cementing the home-school relationship. "It's a way of parents seeing what their kids are doing," says Jane Hambleton an NQT at Eleanor Palmer primary school in Camden, London. "Lots of parents tell me 'my kids never tell me what's going on'. Through homework they can get an idea."
Homework also offers opportunities for schools to communicate their ideas on learning ad to show parents how to help their children.
The Share project was launched in September l996 by the Community Development Centre (CEDC) and now works with 37 LEAs and around 500 primary schools to improve the quality of parents' involvement in their children's education. By producing homework materials and providing workshops and support groups for teachers and parents, it aims to lessen the gap "between the haves and have-nots, those parents who may have had a bad experience of education, have less space at home, and less resources, including computers", says Lisa Capper, the project's educational development manager.
Stimulating exercises which use the many resources in the home and community are keynotes of the approach. Children and parents are encouraged to find and collect items, measure things in the home, work with numbers when they go shopping and find and cost things in a home catalogue together as part of homework programmes.
In secondary schools, there is less emphasis on the schoolparent relationship. An Ofsted study of good practice suggests that skilful teachers use homework to complement classwork, for example, by focusing on tasks which require more time for reflection, or on consolidating skills - rather than for finishing off class work.
They base assessment and grading on agreed school criteria and give prompt feedback so students can improve.
Importantly, homework is used to encourage students, to encourage them to develop their own skills for independent learning by allowing them to use as wide variety of media as possible.
Differentiation at all ages is important, says the study: skill levels may vary but the time and effort required are broadly the same; and SENCOs (special educational needs co-ordinators) are involved in homework planning and can provide expert advice on its feasibility and "not just with SEN pupils".
And finally, imagination is vital. Homework doesn't have to be formal. Headteacher Judy Pitchford, of Glendale Infant School in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, says the school sets tasks which children can do with parents at home.
Late last year, her children were asked to bring in a "Millennium box" - like a time capsule - with 10 things placed in it to depict the millennium. Objects such as pictures of great-great-grandparents, old and new currency were collected.
The project involved parents and encouraged independent learning across a range of subject areas, including maths and reading. A perfect homework task for young children.
l Homework: Learning From Practice. By Penelope Weston. Produced by Ofsted for the DfEE. 1999. pound;11.95. From the Stationery Office and The Publications Centre, PO Box 276, London SW8 5DT. Tel: 020 7873 9090. lHomework: Guidelines for Primary and Secondary Schools. DfEE, 1998.
* Homework and Study Support: A Guide for Teachers and Parents. 1996. By Julian Stern. pound;15. David Fulton Publishers. Tel: 020 7405 5606. l Home: Guidelines for Primary and Secondary Schools, October 1999. NAHT. Tel: 01444 472472.
* Share. Community Education Development Centre, Woodway Park School and Community College, Wigston Road, Coventry CV2 2RH. Tel: 01203 655700. www.cedc.org.ukl Primary File Publishing Ltd, 61 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1 X 8TL, publishes information and resource files for schools and teachers, including homework resources. Tel: 020 7404 2776.