Homework reveals class divide

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Studies by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveal disadvantaged children have a mostly negative experience of school and learning

HOMEWORK CAN be frustrating for middle class children whose parents watch over them too closely. But for those from disadvantaged families, just finding a quiet place to think, away from the television and loud music can be a challenge.

The gulf between pupils' homework experiences were among the differences between richer and poorer state school students, who were studied by researchers from the Open University.

A group of Year 6 pupils at two unidentified state primaries were trained to act as researchers and interview their classmates. One school, referred to as Riverside, was in a middle class part of a university town and had only 10 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals. The other, referred to as Valley Town, was a socially deprived city school where 72 per cent of the pupils had free school meals and many were refugees.

One-fifth of children at the inner-city school got no help at all from parents with their homework. Help given was often restricted to five minutes in subjects such as maths that could be dealt with quickly.

In contrast, more than a third of children at Riverside did not like talking about homework with their family because their parents were so zealous about monitoring it.

Many of the children at Valley Town, who often lived in overcrowded flats or bedsits, said they were distracted by "smoking, banging, swearing, loud music and TV". While 15 per cent never read books at home, almost a quarter watched TV for more than four hours a day. Many watched programmes such as Big Brother after the watershed, causing more than 25 per cent to feel tired at school the next day.

TV viewing by children at Riverside was carefully policed, with some parents banning even pre- watershed programmes such as EastEnders. Riverside children, who benefited from much better environments for reading and writing, were able to build up what the researchers referred to as "private confidence". They did this by reading on their own.

At both schools, confidence in writing was much lower than in reading, with children viewing writing as a painful process, scrutinised by adults and publicly displayed on classroom walls.

The deputy head of Valley Town primary invited parents to a meeting to help them encourage literacy in the home. Only three parents turned up, one a father who could not read but wanted to make sure his children could.

Researchers concluded that homework clubs could provide a lifeline for poorer children. But they warned that extended schools would not work if they simply lengthened school hours and were seen as "more of the same".

Extended schools, they said, would do nothing to help build private confidence among poorer children unless they were offered enough personal space and some degree of autonomy.

"It is, of course, much more expensive to offer these opportunities than to herd 25 children together in one place with one non-teaching supervisor," they said.

Sue Palmer, educational consultant and author of Detoxing Childhood, said unless the Government funded extended schools properly, all they would provide was childcare on the cheap. She believes extended schools should include the chance for children to read for pleasure in the school library.

"Our early start to schooling and test-orientated attitude makes it difficult for children to enjoy reading," she warned. "We are bottom of the world league in this."

* "Children Researching Links Between Poverty and Literacy" by the Children's Research Centre, Open University

Poor pupils' bonus, page 10

The poverty gap, page 28

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