'A ritual torture prescribed by the policy of the school'

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Picture the scene: wee Tracey is sitting at the dining table, chewing her pen, tears falling on the page of her school jotter. Mum and Dad are sitting glaring, blaming each other for being unable to help their daughter through this crisis. The television has not been switched on all evening. Tracey is doing her homework.

This scene is taking place in homes all over the country, with Traceys and Tommys being subjected to a ritual torture prescribed by the homework policy of the school, which in turn is insisted upon by the region. This is homework given for political rather than educational reasons, homework for homework's sake. Seldom child-centred, mostly useless.

Teachers working several hours a night and a big part of their weekends to keep up with the correction and preparation of in-school work must be dismayed to see politicians jumping on the homework bandwagon and pontificating on the need for all children to be given a set amount of homework per week. Comments about too many children failing are coupled with grandiose statements about the need for homework, with no substantial body of research to back them.

As a teacher of 23 years, I am not totally against children learning outside the classroom, but I know from experience that many kinds of homework, given for the wrong reasons, lead to misery for child and parents, and even bad behaviour and truanting. The one and only time I played truant was because I had been unable to do a particularly vicious piece of maths homework, which my brother eventually did for me.

Back to young Tracey. She has struggled to understand some new concept in English or maths, without success. The teacher gives out homework designed to reinforce said concept or give practice in its application. Tracey goes home, hoping Mum and Dad can help, if not she will have to get a copy of the answer fromsomeone who did understand the lesson and hope that the teacher does not spot that she has "cheated". (How many parents do you know who can help, given new methodologies etc?) Homework undermines not only the child's self-esteem but her confidence in her parents. It reinforces feelings of failure while obscuring the pupil's difficulties from the teacher. It is thought and spoken of in the same breath as punishment exercises and often viewed with resentment and dread. What can be worse than struggling with homework you cannot do, only to be given a punishment for not completing it? Then there are children whose home circumstances are not conducive to doing homework - they "forget it" or "lose their jotters" or one of the other time-wasting excuses which lead to punishment.

Can we justify making children spend several hours a week doing school work on top of the six hours a day we already claim? There is a real world outside, from which they should also be learning. Young people learn through asking questions and discussing things. A good heated argument is more stimulating than writing about "My favourite holiday" or doing a page of quadratic equations - there's plenty of time for these things in school.

We must remember that children have rights - to go out with friends, have hobbies, even just laze around sometimes. I remember a family who lived just along the street from us. There were two boys and a girl, the same ages as myself and two brothers. Their parents wanted a teacher and two doctors in the family, so when the rest of the crowd in the street were out playing "kick the can" or rounders, they stayed in doing homework.

The girl became a maths teacher in the school where she had been a pupil; one brother dropped out of university and became a happy sales rep; the other dropped out after one year and one nervous breadown and became a gardener. What they missed were the real learning experiences of growing up with other young people.

Maybe we should look again at our definitions of success. Missing out on childhood, so that you can get a place at university, which you don't really want, is not success. It's a waste, if you have to give up everything else. You can always go back into education, but you can never get your childhood back.

Jean Anderson is a former assistant principal teacher of English at Montrose Academy, Angus Council

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