I think it was in a recent episode of Emmerdale that the son of the family which keeps the Post Office protested that he couldn't help in the shop because he had to do his homework. His father blew up at this. "Homework! Why can't you do it on the bus like we always did?" The incident neatly illuminates the question of whether, given differences of home support, homework can ever be fair. John has his own study, a shelf of reference books, a computer compatible with the ones at school, a mother who is a mathematics lecturer at university. Jane lives with her mother and two younger sisters in a two-bedroomed council flat. She works on quadratic equations on a corner of the table, while baby Jennifer happily kicks and laughs in her high chair next to her.
Surely, by making John and Jane do significant parts of their work at home, the school is denying its own avowed mission to offer them equality of educational opportunity?
It is a dilemma of which Professor John MacBeath of the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde is acutely aware. He has just completed, for the Scottish Office, a major project involving seven pilot schools in three Scottish regions which has culminated in every school north of the border receiving a "homework file" intended to provide practical guidance and to give examples of good practice. Right from the start, he was conscious of the issue of fairness. "There was plenty of evidence that there were incredible gaps in the amount of work done between the pupils who really pushed themselves and those who did nothing."
In the Seventies, he recalls, many schools concluded that the answer was not to set homework at all - a policy with which, as a teacher in those days, he had some sympathy.
Since then, though, his ideas have changed. "It seems to me that you don't achieve anything by stopping the ones who can do well - if you say there'll be no homework, you tie weights round the ankles of those who want to do it. " This means that if you want to keep the homework "gap" to a minimum, "then you have to strengthen the ability of pupils to work outside school".
There are, he believes, numerous ways of doing this, and points to Strathclyde Region's Pounds 1 million a year investment in supported study centres - in effect, supervised homework centres in schools in deprived areas. There are other strategies, too, such as home-school workshops, intended to give confidence to parents who want to help their children but feel they lack the skills.
At school level, though, John MacBeath knows that much can be done to bring order and coherence to the homework policy. His "homework file", which was commissioned by the audit unit of Scottish HMI, sets out to help schools with this, and provides numerous examples. One of the case studies quoted in the file is that of Penicuik High School, just outside Edinburgh, where for more than two years headteacher Alan Waugh has, with colleagues and parents, been gradually improving the school's approach to homework.
There are strong reasons for all schools to take the matter seriously. Earlier this term, when announcing the widespread circulation of the file, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Minister for Education at the Scottish Office, pointed to the "clear evidence" which showed that parents had a "real interest" in the homework given to their children. Doing homework effectively, he said, was "important in helping to raise the level of achievement of individual pupils".
From the start, Penicuik school consulted with parents, by individual interview and through meetings and workshops. It turned out that there was particular concern about the move from primary to secondary. Liz Wozniak, assistant head, recalls the mother who said that "they've just got things right in upper primary and now our children are expected to become researchers overnight".
For Pat Smith, a school board member with three children at Penicuik, this was a recognisable feeling. She explained that some departments set new pupils long-term research projects to be done largely at home. (In history, for example, "The Year I Was Born".) "They would have about three major assignments in the first term, and at first they just didn't have the skills." As a school board member, she worried about the potential unfairness of this. "I'm always aware that we're a supportive family, with books available, and that it must be difficult for those students who are completely on their own."
In response, Penicuik staff - led by Liz Wozniak - put together, in consultation with John MacBeath, a study skills programme to equip pupils for learning on their own, whether in or out of school. Alan Waugh, in fact, suggests that the word "homework" is inadequate to describe what is really "learning outwith (beyond) the formal curriculum".
Integrated into classroom work across the curriculum, the Penicuik study programme sets out, explains Liz Wozniak, "to bring home, for example, the importance of regular review of what has been learned. A lot of kids try to learn from just reading notes, but we show them, for example, how they can take a blank sheet of paper and make a concept map of what they know already. This is a great confidence builder."
There is great emphasis, too, on organisation and planning, recognising that not all students plan in the same way. To support this, the school issues each pupils with a year planner on which to enter all relevant assignment and exam dates.
The onus is on the school, of course, to make sure that homework tasks are sensible and intelligible. Alan Waugh recognises the responsibility here in terms of work being planned and dovetailed with the curriculum. "There's no point in giving homework for the sake of it. It must always be of quality and provide feedback for the student. If there's no feedback, it's better not to give the homework at all."
Pat Smith is certainly aware of an improvement in the way that the school approaches homework. "It tends to be more specific, and I'm never aware of it being hurriedly set."
Penicuik's pupils, too, are conscious that things have changed. Sixteen-year-old Laura Smith told me: "We've been given study techniques and told a lot about planning. I used to leave things to the last minute. Now I spread it out more." She particularly appreciated the way that her teachers had, using tape recordings and note-taking exercises, helped her to find her own best learning techniques. "They'd say what do you see in your mind - a picture, or a word? And they helped me to make mental maps and to see what's linked to what."
Ross Hadwen, also 16, appreciates the school study planner. "I have it on my wall, and I see it every day. It's a great help when there are so many subjects to remember."
Pat Smith, hearing this, recalls how her eldest son, a senior pupil who did his exams before study skills were taught "just didn't know where to start when the time came to revise".
Penicuik staff emphasise that the school has moved gradually in developing its study policy, recognising the need to keep staff, students and parents all on board and in agreement. Part of the process has been to help parents understand that homework, in Alan Waugh's words, "is not like when they were at school".
The task might be, for example, to watch a television documentary, and Laura Smith's previous evening's homework had been to prepare a talk in French and put it on tape to hand in.
The next step, currently being planned by a task group, will be to issue each student with his or her own school homework file. More than the standard homework diary, this will, in effect, be a complete home-school liaison document with information on techniques, expectations, feedback and details of assignments to come. A parallel planning thread aims to make it easier for students to work in school after hours.
In secondary schools, homework is part of the culture, In primary, though, expectations vary widely. At Aberdour primary in Fife, one of the pilot schools in John MacBeath's project and a case study in the homework file, until a couple of years ago homework had mostly been a matter of sending reading and maths books home. Margaret Tollick, who was the head then (she left the school this summer) says she felt that if the school was to start something more ambitious, "we wanted it to be more than just 10 spellings and 10 sums every night - we wanted an experience based on the teaching and learning that went on in school".
Consultation with parents - which included a workshop for them to try some of the tasks - revealed enthusiastic support for homework, and to emphasise the notion of partnership, the school ditched the word in favour of "school-home activity research exercises" which produces the acronym SHARE.
Margaret Tollick explains that tasks were set for the pupils generally related to their classroom project work. Thus when the youngest were working on transport, "they were asked to do a survey at home and draw as many things on wheels as possible".
A little further up the school, eight-year-olds, in support of a mathematics project, were asked to construct something that had at least one moving part. "We ended up with everything from sophisticated models to simple things made from cornflake packets. We emphasised that at no point was it to be competitive. We made sure that it was what each child had produced that mattered, not how it compared with the others."
Teachers were always concerned to make sure that activities were accessible to all children, and could be done in partnership with parents - "we gave them problem-solving and research activities which involved discussion with the family".
One of the major lessons to be learned from Penicuik and from John MacBeath's other case studies - both primary and secondary - is that to be successful, a homework policy must develop in partnership with parents. John Macbeath finds it interesting, for example, that although teachers at the lower end of the primary sector might not claim to be "setting homework", lots of them have good home-school mechanisms to support reading.
He also acknowledges, in the Homework File, the importance of the work done by Ruth Merttens of the University of North London in her IMPACT primary home-school maths project.
Teachers ought not, he suggests, to allow a gap to develop between primary home-school projects and more formal homework setting later. The primary projects "demonstrate exactly the flavour to aim for".
Illustrating this has been the response of special education to the Homework File. At first the Scottish Office did not issue the file to special schools, not wanting to give the impression that homework was a requirement for them. As John MacBeath points out, though, learning targets in a special school might include knowing how to drink a cup of tea. "It's a seamless link between home and school."
The special schools, therefore, demanded to be included, "because they've grasped already that all learning is a home-school affair".