C'mon Tone, why don't you give the kids a break?

24th January 1997 at 00:00
You're at a party and you meet someone who begins haranguing you with his view that eating bananas is the best way to prevent cancer. The trouble is that the very act of challenging an absurdity somehow lends it credibility. You take refuge in the only alternative defence: you begin to ask polite questions. "How interesting! And what makes you think that?" This was my reaction to Tony Blair's recent "cure" for all that ails the educational world: compulsory homework - half an hour each night for the littl' uns and 90 minutes for the heavyweights. "You CANNOT be serious, Tone!" He is, so here are my questions.

First, I'd like to know what he believes the specific purposes of homework to be. I can imagine several: to complete work not finished in class, for example, or to assist the child in acquiring the skills of independent study.

So, next question: what should the role of parents be in all of this? Possible answers include facilitating the learning by providing a suitable study environment and offering encouragement. I honestly believe most parents would wish to do this, though it's clearly going to be more difficult for some than others. Still, it's good we can agree on something - namely that bananas, or rather homework, may be a beneficial part of any educational diet. But a compulsory 90 minutes of the stuff every evening? It's at this point that I abandon questioning, overwhelmed by the absurdity.

Heaven forfend that we should reduce the discussion to practicalities, but here are a few. At secondary school level where pupils study more than one subject, how is the "allocation" per subject to be determined? How do we cope with the problem of pupils working at different rates? Will the slower ones be required to do more than the 90 minutes in order to finish the task and, if not, how will the teachers know the difference between someone who's having genuine difficulty and someone who's just slacking?

More philosophically, isn't one of the essential skills of private study that the student learn to plan the study for himself? I used to find it took me about an hour just to warm up, but others seemed to perform best if they went at it in short bursts.

More than that, is school all there is to life? What about leisure activities, time with the family? If you include travelling home from school and eating, 90 minutes every night doesn't leave much time for what we might fancifully describe as "living".

It's a strange world where the heir to the throne comes up with a more radical solution to the problems of education than the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. Despite the fact that his study support projects have been linked to Tony Blair's demand for compulsory homework, they are, in fact, a very different animal. For a start, the study isn't done at home, it's done in school and, in the most touted example at Bellshill Academy (my old school, by the way), it's linked to opportunities for children to take part in leisure activities. So there is an opportunity for social and personal development alongside the learning. More than that, the role of older pupils as paid peer tutors is both imaginative and exciting.

By comparison, poor old Mr Blair's suggestion seems curiously dated and out of touch with reality. It's only interesting in one regard. It is at least an attempt to tackle a real problem - namely, the lack of any sense of common purpose linking school and home. The trouble is that parents co-operating in facilitating homework is surely one of the objectives of such a link, rather than the means to bring it about.

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