Homework? A total waste of time

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Children's author agrees with her former headteacher that learning should remain in the classroom

I have an unusual DVD at home. It is a brief news item from late 1959 in which a posh reporter interviews the headmistress of a south London primary school about an apparent increase in creativity and articulacy among very young children. The report features a six-year-old reading out a story she has written. The child is me, and that is why I am interested in the film, but everyone else will probably find a line from the headteacher more remarkable.

"Of course," says Mrs Owen, "we don't have any truck with homework or anything like that." Her tone of voice, and the "of course" suggest that the statement was unsurprising 50 years ago.

These days, it would probably be the most noteworthy thing she said. She would face hostile questions from the TV crew, followed by outraged articles in the press.

By the time my three children started school in the 1990s, the tone and tempo of every evening was determined by a combination of work and apparently pointless tasks set to fulfil the demands of the homework timetable.

It sometimes seemed that teaching the "heartsink" subjects (such as comprehension, spelling, and maths) had been subcontracted to me, and that if my children failed to deliver, it was my fault.

Yet in some ways we were lucky. I hear that the quantity and seriousness of homework are increasing, with family life blighted even at weekends and half-term.

Looking back on my children's early years, my greatest regret is that I always supported their schools. In my experience, a task that takes 30 minutes in a classroom takes 90 minutes at home, with all its power play, distractions and interruptions. I nagged, shouted, bullied and bribed my children to complete their work.

I realise now that I should have stood up against homework inflation, and fought for us to spend more time as a family, doing things that related to, and consolidated, our lives together. I'm not saying that education is unimportant - I was liberated by mine - but I do feel that learning takes place in many locations other than school, often by non-academic means. Modern families are short of shared time. To pollute their homes with the values and anxieties of the classroom is a mistake.

Children need space to themselves, free from the imperative to perform. In the muddle of undirected activity they may discover interests that last a lifetime. Only with time can a child learn the joys of reading for pleasure; and apparently mundane domestic activities, incidentally, help all family members learn to balance work and real life.

Politicians complain that today's children are turning into couch potatoes, slumped in front of their TVs or computer games.

But what drives those children out of the garden, away from the kitchen table and in front of the screens in the first place? What gives them the excuse to cut themselves off? It's homework.

I suspect that Mrs Owen's opposition to homework did not spring solely from a respect for family life. She knew, as the head of a school where many parents were hostile to education (or in some cases disengaged from it because they were in prison), that to rely on the home to deliver key elements of education was to exacerbate disadvantages and to limit equality of opportunity.

The current obsession with binding parents into education, while apparently laudable, can be carried too far. It can make children the prisoners of backgrounds from which they are entitled to have the option of escape by means of their own, private, contract with their teachers.

Schools themselves can be victims of homework. It needs setting, marking, policing and feedback, which eat time from the school day. Cutting homework would reduce the burden teachers have to take home with them, diminishing the negative effect of their jobs on their own families.

About ten years ago, I read a study conducted at Durham University which suggested that, in maths at least, homework might not make any difference to primary pupils' performance. Is there any up-to-date evidence proving that it is impossible for pupils to progress entirely through study in school time?

Teachers I have asked about this often say that they set homework because parents want it. I understand that. I know people who are terrified that their children might fall behind without homework, and at parents' meetings I felt I had to pretend that I wanted it too.

Mrs Owen spoke about parental pressure 50 years ago: "Even here in an infants' school I have children brought to me at five years old, and the first thing the mother says is, 'Good morning. My child is coming to school. Can you give him some homework? I want him to go to a grammar school."

She recognised their concerns, but she knew that homework would not necessarily address them. The crucial difference between Mrs Owen and teachers who might agree with her today is that she felt she had (and, indeed, genuinely enjoyed) the freedom to stand up to those parents who pushed for extra work and teaching to tests.

In 1959, I was too young to know what she was talking about, but hearing her words now stirs firm agreement in me.

For the sake of children, families and teachers we must break away from the automatic assumption that homework is a good thing, or at least test objectively whether it really is.

Freeing the family from its grip might even result in a more positive and productive partnership between parents and teachers, and a richer life for all, with less anxiety, fewer tears, and more time to reflect and grow.

Eleanor Updale's latest novel, 'Johnny Swanson', is published by David Fickling Books

Dr Eleanor Updale is a Royal Literary Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, and her Montmorency novels have won awards here and in the US.

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