Homework addicts will not thank us;Another Voice;Opinion

1st May 1998 at 01:00
In the 1970s, "the British disease" meant workers who took long tea-breaks shortly before knocking off early. Workplaces these days are characterised more often by excessive pressure and the belief that putting in long hours is the route to success.

My generation grew up thinking that there is more to life than working hard. Now that we have learned better, we are preparing to teach our children to follow our lead. Funnily enough the Japanese, in whose footsteps we tread, are simultaneously trying to reverse their own society's disease: workaholism.

We will rue the day when David Blunkett published quantitative homework "guidelines" that pre-empt an ascending portion of out-of-school time for children between the ages of four and 16.

This is not because homework, for children of all ages, is a bad idea. Of course it can teach children to be more autonomous and take responsibility, at the same time as being a tool of home-school contact.

But why can it not do so in small doses? The Blunkett guidelines threaten to extend the school day to mimic the long-hours drudgery suffered by working adults.

The threat is real for a combination of reasons. First, because in our anxiety to improve education, we are in the habit of getting unduly obsessed by the things we can see and measure.

That is why standard assessment tasks (SATs) have turned from a means of quietly monitoring children at risk of falling behind, and increasingly have become an end in themselves. (Kenneth Baker in 1988 would have vigorously denied that within 10 years primary schools would routinely "teach to the test" and parents rush out to buy guides on how to "pass"). In the case of homework, schools will reassure anxious parents with quantities of homework equal to or greater than national guidelines.

The second reason for worry is the type of homework that is likely to result. Obsession with quantity works well neither for teachers, parents nor children.

Primary school teachers who have relatively little non-contact time cannot be expected to set, let alone mark, large quantities of imaginative exercises, so little wonder there is already so much colouring-in, and worksheets of 20 identical sums when five or 10 would have been fine.

For pressured parents, supervision becomes the tension of getting the child through these tasks rather than the joy of taking time to study with their sons and daughters. For the child it causes angst or becomes a chore. Surely for a seven-year-old a couple of interesting 20-minute assignments a week would be more useful than more than two hours of rather tedious work?

Why are we doing this? Partly under the ridiculous pretext of getting kids away from the television. Mr Blunkett's view that children who watch TV for three hours a day can afford instead to devote it to this other largely mindless activity is incredibly defeatist.

It insults children who can find better things to do, including participating in the huge number of out-of-school activities on offer. It also assumes that it is too dangerous to allow growing children the independence in organising their time and developing their interests that most of us remember and value from our own childhood.

But the main reason, I suspect, is a collective insecurity about our children's futures. We imagine that the harder they work the better off they will be, if not today, then tomorrow. They have to learn to buckle down.

This view that "more means better" in education is disturbing, not least when we look at other countries. Swedish children are among the best readers in the world for their age by the end of primary school, even though they do not start it until seven. True, they often learn to read at home before that age, but not because of central government diktats.

At the other extreme, the Japanese have long had an education system based around hard work. Young children spend evenings in crammers to prepare them over many years for "examination hell" at ages 15 and 18. They do so in order to get jobs with big companies, who have traditionally sought employees who can demonstrate the key qualities of diligence and dedication.

Now the Japanese are trying hard to change this ethos. Companies fear that their workers are dedicated but lack imagination or originality. They try to send out different signals. The education ministry wants schools and children to loosen up. But a workaholic culture is one of the hardest addictions to kick.

Those who top their high school exams continue to go to Tokyo University, the top firms still recruit them, and parents continue to use crammers. Parents are also protesting at a reform that is abolishing Saturday classes.

We have happily not reached this stage of addiction but we are well on our way. In thinking about how we can stop this folly, let us not forget what is at stake. It's a cliche, but true: childhood - free of undue cares and pressures - is our most precious possession.

Donald Hirsch is a parent and a consultant on international education trends for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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