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Dangers of work dressed up as play

Guilty parents are fuelling demand for home 'edu-tainment' products that promise fun learning. But they often end up unused, say David Buckingham and Margaret Scanlon

here is growing recognition of parents as children's first educators.

National tests, league tables and more homework also mean they feel obliged to provide extra support for their children. Many feel guilty that they are not doing enough.

Out of this guilt comes a marketing opportunity: home tutoring is booming, particularly in London and the South-east; and sales of educational toys, software, books and magazines have surged.

These new media for home use often claim to "make learning fun" by using imagery and characters from children's popular culture. Such "edutainment" is sold as an exciting alternative to the alleged tedium of school work.

Children, it is argued, gain a competitive edge on their peers - and yet do not even know they are learning.

Some see such home learning as positive, and a means of equalising opportunities for groups not performing well at school. Others, however, argue that education work is eating away at important time for children's leisure and play.

In our research, we surveyed more than 800 parents in four London schools, and conducted in-depth interviews with 20 families in their homes. Not surprisingly, we found that middle-class families were more likely to have computers and internet access than working-class ones.

Households with non-working parents or single parents were less likely to buy educational software, to use educational websites, or to buy information books. Middle-class parents were also more likely to help children with homework.

In our interviews, many parents expressed anxieties about supporting school work. Several felt that children were being set rising amounts of homework and some thought this unnecessary. Supporting homework posed particular difficulties for single and working parents. Several complained about the demands on their time; others felt unable to help because they did not know enough about the content, or how to teach it.

Several also felt under pressure to pay for home tutors, largely as a result of increasing competition for secondary places. While some parents were enthusiastic about their role as educators, none was immune from feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

When it came to books and other media, children were primarily interested in entertainment. Attempts to educate were often seen as boring. Parents were pragmatic: they accepted that children were unlikely to enjoy a didactic approach, and might leave materials unused or unread for this reason.

Few parents bought information books regularly. Some types of books were better received: for example, children preferred popular paperback series such as Terry Deary's Horrible Histories to glossy hardback reference books.

Nearly all the parents cited education as a reason for buying a computer.

However, PCs did not fulfil their educational promise. Few parents bought software regularly and the range of titles used was narrow. This was partly because they did not know what was available, but it also reflected parents' and children's disappointment with the titles they had purchased.

The "fun" element of educational software was often seen as patronising and superficial - and much less engaging than computer games.

As children become more computer literate, there is a danger that a new gap between generations will emerge. While 11 to 13-year-olds, particularly boys, preferred the internet to books as a source of information, some mothers - who tend to take primary responsibility for home learning - preferred books, and were less comfortable with computers.

Interestingly, several parents were sceptical about the Government's Learning Journey initiative, designed to promote learning in the home.

Many saw it as unrealistic and puritanical, and felt that they should educate children in less formal, didactic ways. As one parent put it: "I'm a parent, not a teacher."

David Buckingham and Margaret Scanlon are based at the Institute of Education, London University. Their book 'Education, Entertainment and Learning in the Home' is published by Open University Press

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