Homework fails the test

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Hoorah for headmaster Mr Elder, I say, even if he is one of those uppity prep school heads who frighten us all so much. He has drawn mainstream newspaper attention to himself by abolishing homework at his Scottish school, and he gives two reasons.

First, he says, parents are prone to help their children, and their meddling only confuses them. Second, says this robust chap, home is for home life; and he feels that children should learn to make their own judgements about things they want to revise and study further when the long school day is done.

The first argument is one which only a smoothly confident, uppity head would dare to make, since while it is true that maths and science help from parents can be toxic, there are other areas in which educated parents quite often get seriously irritated by young teachers' errors - notably bad spelling in the margins and erroneous claims, e.g. "Oval means egg-shaped" (that one sent a friend of mine roaring down to his daughter's school, steam hissing out of his ears, crying "Ovoid, Ovoid!" to the alarm of passers-by).

But his second argument is bang on. Homework, certainly for the under-12s, is a sacred cow which is way overdue for the slaughterhouse. We have allowed it to creep downward through the age range until it now afflicts even children of six and seven.

Government prod-noses are forever preaching the importance of homework and setting silly targets about how many minutes per day each age should do, but that is because they do not understand much about real children and wish to appear to be "doing something" and "driving up standards" without actually spending money or paying more teachers.

Meanwhile, self-advertising schools always make much of their homework demands because they want to give the impression that they are highly academic places full of aspiring, focused, middle-class children from homes full of books. And pushy, silly parents brag over coffee that their little Demetrius has "at least an hour every night", to make other parents feel inferior and panicky.

But, from my observation, what really happens is that, more often than not, teachers set homework, not because they think it will improve children's learning, but because the school policy says they have to.

Young children bring home dreary, repetitive, joyless tasks which teach them nothing new. The process often involves either a great deal of colouring-in, or else looking up things in books the family doesn't have, or thoroughly upsetting everybody as rows break out over the bizarre demands of New Maths, or what the hell a particular question means.

And that is before all the other rows: the one about having the telly on while you work, the one about getting down to it before The Simpsons, or (with the more anxious child) the row over bedtime getting later and later because he is sitting up weeping over the infernal homework.

The result is that learning becomes associated with oppression, tension, misery and excuses. Conscientious little children struggle often for two hours after a long school day; feckless ones finish their homework on the bus, or against the cloakroom wall. Parents get home from their own stressful days and are entirely unable to enjoy their children's company because of the need to nag them.

Children, desperate for a bit of a break, habitually tell lies about having no homework.

Different teachers get their wires crossed, so some nights there is hardly any whereas the next night there is three hours' worth. Heavy bagsful of books are carried to and from schools on young shoulders, foreshadowing a future epidemic of bad backs.

And when the stuff is actually handed in, are the teachers happy? No. They groan. Marking is just more work for them to do, and the three-way relationship between teacher, child and subject has been poisoned by resentment.

Of course there has to be some homework later on, at secondary school. Of course children gradually have to learn to do things alone, without someone standing over them. But primary school homework is not the way to do it.

In my ideal world a primary teacher would simply ask for a little bit of reading with parents in the first years, and thereafter set nothing compulsory for the hours after school. Children would be encouraged to explore ideas and subjects independently, as their own interest or sense of need dictated; books would be freely lent by the school for private reading, and anything brought in voluntarily by an enterprising child would be welcomed, praised and discussed.

And when the time came for formal homework, at 12 or so, the children would swell with pride at this badge of adulthood and positively enjoy bringing it home.

Oh, the dream!

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