Should one lift one's hat to a lady who is merely an acquaintance? What is the best method of cleaning silver candelabras? It is hard not to smirk at the questions posed in the pre-war manuals that offered tips on housekeeping and etiquette to middle-class newly-weds.
But politicians might find these books useful this week because they invariably include some sound advice on homework. Everybody's best friend, for example, a plump volume that was on sale when Hitler invaded France, offers this guidance to a lady asking how much time her daughter should devote to homework: "The real difficulty is that while it is simple to set time-limits it is next to impossible to ensure that children, especially younger children, adhere to them. One child will do half an hour's work in 10 minutes; another child of equal mental capacity will, owing to faulty methods or dilatory habits, take an hour for the same job." The Board of Education had specified study times in 1937 (one hour a night for 12 to 14-year-olds and one-and-a-half-hours for 14 to 16-year-olds). But as these time-limits were not mandatory, and the world was soon at war, the advice was quickly forgotten.
It remains to be seen whether the present concern about homework will also become a footnote in education history or whether it presages a genuine attempt to instil Japanese-style work habits in Britain's children. Some pundits dismiss politicians' current fascination with homework as pre-election posturing by two parties eager to be seen as tough on education standards. But it is more than that. As Vernon Bogdanor wrote in an insightful TES article on November 15: "There is more in common between two politicians of different parties who belong to the same generation than there is between two politicians who belong to the same party but to different generations ... the real ruler of Britain is the climate of ideas, not the temporary custodian of No 10."
The prevailing consensus is that Britain must climb the international educational tables if it is to prosper. But is homework a suitable focus of attention? What are the consequences of asking children to work more overtime? And which party has the sounder policy?
The answer to the first question is a qualified "yes". Many children do spend too many hours watching television or playing computer games. It is also true that successful schools tend to set a lot of homework, as Michael Barber's new study (page 6) indicates. But there is a mythology that must be confronted. The best teachers do not always give homework regularly: they vary its use according to children's interests and capabilities. More homework isn't always better than less: it is the quality of the exercise that is important. Homework does not always foster discipline and personal responsibility: if it is tedious and time-consuming it can be counter-productive.
Labour's plan to make primary children do at least half-an-hour's homework a night and secondary pupils one-and-a-half hours would cause a culture shock in many schools. A 1995 survey showed that 43 per cent of top juniors did no homework while 64 per cent of first-year secondary pupils did less than one-and-a-half hours. Extra homework would inevitably impose a burden on parents because they would have to nag to ensure it was done. And it would add to teachers' workload. A new approach to marking might therefore be needed. French and German teachers put homework answers on the blackboard and expect children to mark their own books. We might have to consider something similar.
It is not, however, the prospect of more homework that irks the teacher unions but the fact that Labour is stipulating the number of hours required. As the 1930s' agony aunts understood, this is ill-advised and unenforceable. Labour's plan to provide Millennium Commission money for homework clubs is, however, more realistic. No one should expect pupils to do more homework if they have no adult support and no quiet space at home, or indeed if they are members of the army of lowly-paid child-workers (News Focus, page 13).
Gillian Shephard's approach - emphasising the importance of homework but refusing to prescribe times - is more sensible, but she and her junior ministers invite derision by claiming that their role is to "encourage, not prescribe". The Government also deserves criticism for failing to put its money where its mouth is. Twelve pilot homework projects are to get Pounds 60, 000, and a piddling Pounds 15,000 will be granted to the Prince's Trust, which is setting up a national network of study support centres. Educational progress does not need to cost a fortune. But it doesn't come that cheaply.