Homework lessons from PISA: looking past the headlines

John Jerrim

When the PISA results are released, almost everyone is fixated upon the average scores children have achieved in reading, science and mathematics, and our latest position in the “international rankings”. However, a lot of other information is captured within this study, some of which is actually a lot more interesting than the headline results themselves. My report for the Sutton Trust today looks at one such issue – how much time do 15-year-olds spend in additional learning activities outside of their core timetabled hours? This captures not only the use of private tutors, but also access to afterschool clubs. Here, I briefly overview four of the key messages coming out from this report.

  1. Although there is a socio-economic gap in total time spent on additional learning activities, it is actually quite small (on average)……

In England, Year 11 pupils report spending an average of 9.5 hours per week on some kind of additional learning outside of their core timetabled hours. However, somewhat surprisingly, differences by family background are actually quite small. Specifically, the difference reported by Year 11 pupils from advantaged and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds is only around 40 minutes per week. England is similar to most of the other 21 countries included in the report in this respect.

  1. ….Though there are some important differences in how children from different family backgrounds spend this time

As Table 1 illustrates, those pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds actually spend slightly more time on additional instruction in academic subjects than their more advantaged peers (up to 45 minutes per week in English and mathematics). In contrast, Year 11s from the most affluent socio-economic groups spend significantly more time in additional lessons developing their music or foreign language skills, or training in a sport. This may reflect the timing of the PISA study – just six months before children sit their GCSE examinations – with disadvantaged pupils (and their schools) focusing their time and effort in reaching the pass mark in core academic subjects such as English, science and mathematics.

Table 1.3. Weekly additional instruction in England by subject

Disadvantaged Advantaged SES_GAP
Science 2.6 hours 2.1 hours -0.5 hours
Mathematics 2.5 hours 1.9 hours -0.7 hours
English 2.4 hours 1.6 hours -0.8 hours
Foreign languages 0.7 hours 1.1 hours 0.3 hours
Social sciences 1.3 hours 1.1 hours -0.2 hours
Music 0.6 hours 1.0 hours 0.4 hours
Sports 1.6 hours 2.3 hours 0.7 hours
Performing arts 0.7 hours 0.9 hours 0.2 hours
Visual arts 0.8 hours 0.9 hours 0.1 hours
Other 1.7 hours 1.4 hours -0.3 hours



  1. Big differences can be observed when we look across achievement groups…….

This is true both in terms of total time spent upon additional instruction, and in the use of private tuition. As Tables 2 and 3 illustrate, those Year 11s from affluent backgrounds who are in danger of failing their GCSEs spend 15 hours on additional instruction per week, with one-in-three receiving one-to-one private tuition. In contrast, the most able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds spend only half as much time upon additional study (seven hours), with less than one-in-twelve receiving one-to-one tuition. This highlights how affluent families may use such additional instruction services as a kid of safety net to ensure that, if their offspring are struggling in schools, they are given the best possible chance to pass their GCSE exams.

Table 2. Average number of hours of additional instruction received per week in England, by socioeconomic status and achievement group

  Disadvantaged Advantaged
Low achievement 12.4 hours 15.1 hours
Q2 9.1 hours 12.8 hours
Q3 7.3 hours 10.0 hours
High achievement 7.0 hours 8.3 hours


Table 3. The percent of pupils in England receiving one-to-one tuition, by socio-economic status and achievement group

  Disadvantaged Advantaged
Low achievement 23% 32%
Q2 14% 19%
Q3 12% 27%
High achievement 7% 14%



  1. Actually, much bigger differences by family background can be observed in parental help for homework……

While two-thirds of children from affluent backgrounds regularly receive help with their homework from their parents, this falls to just half of those from the least advantaged families. In only three of the 21 other participating countries is the gap in homework help significantly bigger than in England (these countries are Hong Kong, South Korea and Italy), while in 12 it is significantly smaller. Moreover, low-income pupils in England are particularly likely to report that nobody regularly helps them with their homework. Together, this serves as an important reminder that it is not only schools who are responsible for children’s GCSE grades, families also have a critical role in their achievement as well.

Dr John Jerrim is a Research Associate at Education Datalab and a Reader in Educational and Social

Statistics at UCL Institute of Education.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in International comparisons, Social sciences and social policy
2 comments on “Homework lessons from PISA: looking past the headlines
  1. elsa Bauman says:

    About two decades ago,there was a study titled “Top Ten Educacional Sytems”which provided valuable information that included: homework,hours in front of the Tv per day,number of days per school year,length ofschool day,parental attitude withregards knowledge,tutorial lessons,state money offered to famulies to be used on tutors or to be saved for college….

  2. educationstate says:

    Others are waiting (vainly, it seems) for Schleicher and the gang to come clean about the many serious limitations of PISA, and to stop exaggerating the power of the PISA tests and surveys.

    Also, if you make use of PISA in your daily work then whether you like it or not, you are complicit in an education system that is run on data, league tables and competition rather than run with people, and through dialogue and collaboration.

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