Homework has been part of prep school life "for many, many years", says Martin Cooke, head of Clay-esmore preparatory school near Blandford in Dorset, where children aged from three upwards regularly receive homework. "If children get into a homework routine, it becomes very matter-of-fact because they can't remember a time when they didn't have it."
At Clayesmore, which has 270 pupils, the three year-olds in the kindergarten will take home reading books or words to learn and by the time they are aged nine or ten in Year 5, the children will have half an hour's homework every night - the amount a Labour government would like to impose on all state primary pupils. National research suggests that, at present, only 43 per cent of top juniors in primary schools receive regular homework.
From Year 5, Clayesmore offers all children the opportunity to do their homework during a supervised prep session after supper from 6 to 6.30pm, even though the majority of the pupils are not boarders. "It can be grim to gear yourself up to school work after your journey home, when you just want to relax," says Martin Cooke.
He points out that not all children have a quiet room at home where they can work undistracted. If they stay at school, they also have the advantage of a teacher on hand to help with any problems and the run of the library and IT facilities. "It's better doing prep at school because you've got your tray there with everything in it," agrees nine-year-old Alex Walker. "It takes the pressure off."
Pupils have homework diaries where they can write down their assignments. "You always know exactly what's expected of you," says ten-year-old Stephen Adams. The sort of assignments Stephen and his classmates might be set this term include planning research for an English project, filling in a history crossword on the latest topic or completing a maths worksheet going over work already covered in class.
"Homework should be satisfying and confidence-building, not stressful, " insists Martin Cooke. He recognises that if homework is too difficult, it can have a negative effect. One of the main tenets of Clayesmore's prep policy is that homework should be differentiated according to the ability of the children. The homework diaries also provide a space for parents to comment on the suitability of the work that has been set. According to the policy, which is clearly spelled out in the school's prospectus, if there have been any difficulties, staff must sort them out during the next lesson.
Parents say that homework teaches their children to make more effort and this is what they expect as part of the education they are paying for. "The work ethos gets instilled," says Nikki Cheung, who has a three-year-old and a six-year-old at Clayesmore where fees are Pounds 2,100 a term from Year 4. "They learn that you have to do a little bit more, go that extra mile."
"It's part of what you're paying for. If you want your children to do well, you expect them to have to work hard," says the mother of a pupil at Castle Court, a day preparatory school near Poole, dorset, where fees are Pounds 2,300 a term from year 3. The information both schools provide for prospective parents contains detailed references to prep.
"We try to make sure that prep is manageable", explains Clayes-more's A to Z for Parents. "In other words, we try to avoid children sitting nonplussed as they face their prep, and parents having to give up whole evenings to fathom out mathematical problems that they have not faced for 30 years! Prep should be a means of literally preparing for work to be done next day or for reinforcing skills and knowledge that has been imparted during the course of the teaching day."
As far as the schools are concerned, the main aim of the crisp homework routine is to encourage independence. Martin Cooke says that regular prep helps children to develop responsibility for their own learning, a view echoed by Richard Nicholl, head of Castle Court.
"It teaches children self-discipline so that they learn to work on their own," he says. But so that it doesn't come as too much of a shock, the school introduces homework gradually, starting with reading and spelling for the four to six-year olds, and working up to 50 minutes a day by the third term in Year 5.
Pupils can choose to do their prep at home or at school - which suits working parents who can collect their children at 6pm when they've had their tea and finished with studying for the day.
Richard Nicholl argues that children become more self-reliant if they have to tackle some prep at home, rather than depending on school supervision. The pupils themselves seem to take the extra workload for granted, and have no difficulty in recognising the benefits.
If you have to do the work on your own, you can see how much you've really understood, says 12-year-old Jenny Parvin. "You also get the chance to use your own ideas, particularly in English."
Both heads admit that they expect a lot of their pupils; from Year 5, prep, games, orchestra practice, and other activities mean that the school day often doesn't end until at least 6pm. But they do not believe that the demands are excessive.
"Within our day, we provide time for the children to relax and play," explains Richard Nicholl. "Many children go home after prep and still have enough energy for swimming, Brownies or tennis coaching."
At Clayesmore, the nine to eleven-year-old day pupils often stay on for an extra half hour after prep finishes at 6.30pm to have more time to play with their friends. They can use the computers, play table tennis or, in the summer, go for a bike ride in the grounds.
The suggestion that staff might find the marking schedule punishing is met with puzzlement.
"It's all part of the territory," says Graham Jones, director of studies at Clayesmore, who has been on duty until 9pm the day before. Setting and marking prep and other after-school activities are all part of staff contracts. Compensation comes in the form of extra holidays, which are around four weeks longer than in the state sector, and from small classes, with an average of 15 pupils.
Both schools believe that teachers' and pupils' efforts are rewarded by better results. Martin Cooke points to key stage 2 national test results way above the national average, while Richard Nicholl indicates the long list of public school scholarships and grammar school entries, despite a wide range of ability reflected in IQs ranging from 90 to 140-plus.
"Quite a lot of children surpass our original expectations," Mr Nicholl says. "Because of the foundation of study and self-discipline we have given them, they reach beyond what might have been expected."
Schools must be able to justify the homework they set, according to David Hanson, director of education at the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools. "There are several key questions which schools should be asking themselves about homework," he says. "Do parents and pupils understand the point of it? Is it being properly planned and followed through? How effective is it in improving children's performance? It's all too easy, if you're used to setting homework, not to think about these issues."
Homework should extend the pupils and give them the chance to explore new ideas, as well as consolidate what they have been taught in class, Mr Hanson believes. And timetables are valuable so that pupils are not landed with three long essays all due in at the same time.
Meanwhile, John Coe, a former head and spokesman for the National Association for Primary Education, is convinced that homework in state primary schools is more widespread than it would seem.
The association's recent survey of primary schools in Oxfordshire revealed that more than 85 per cent of pupils were receiving homework, not just ten spellings or five sums, but investigative work, too.
"Some state schools are using homework to flesh out the rather bare bones of the national curriculum," says Mr Coe. "The formal setting of homework on a regular basis also eases the transition to secondary school."
He thinks there is no magic formula for all primary schools; each one has to work out its own priorities for homework, in consultation with parents. "Where parents are prepared to pay huge sums for their children's education, you can take their support for granted. In state schools, teachers need to build a partnership with parents over homework," Mr Coe says.
Resources are another important factor. According to Mr Coe, any government seeking to make homework compulsory must consider the financial implications of setting up after-school homework clubs, for instance. "Staff need to be paid to supervise them," he says.
"The profession is already at full stretch. Why else are teachers leaving in droves?"
WORK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF
Examples of the homework policies at Clayesmore and Castle Court schools
* Pupils have home-work diaries , which can also be used as a method of communication between parents and staff.
* All homework should be marked within two days and returned with positive, constructive comments and guidance as necessary.
* Homework should generally provide the opportunity to reinforce or practise work already thoroughly covered in class.
* Children should not be set homework they do not know how to do.
* Homework should be differentiated according to the abilities of the children in any one class.
* Children should have all the resources they need to do their homework: there should be no need for children to share textbooks * Reading preps should not be set as time-fillers but should have a specific purpose such as revision or preparation for a topic. Teachers should specify the quantity of reading required.
* The emphasis should be on setting assign-ments which children will find reasonably straightforward and satisfying to do, but will still provide them with the challenge of 30 minutes' worthwhile work.