How anxiety makes for a lot of homework;Opinion

17th December 1999 at 00:00
A RECENT survey showed that 80 per cent of parents were keen for their children to be set homework. Reason enough for any government, especially one anxious to maintain its reputation for standards, not to waver and introduce clear guidelines on the issue.

But that of course is part of the problem with homework. It is one of those talismanic issues within education that is difficult to debate with any degree of rationality, certainly at the level of policy. For it has achieved the status of other totems like uniform, grammar and setting. To raise any doubts about its intrinsic value, even to ask whether we use it in the right way, is instantly to label the questioner as a subversive who has no interest in raising the achievement of pupils.

The independent sector has always understood the value of homework in this respect. Far from making parents wonder what on earth their children do in school all day when so much is required of them when they get home, piling up the sums and spelling tests is proof positive that the school is giving value for money. The more Dorling Kindersley books that need to be bought or hours clocked up downloading from the Internet to finish off that project the more convinced the parent is, in theory at least, that the school demands high standards. The state sector has no alternative but to follow suite.

But scratch beneath the surface and the picture is not quite so clear. Many parents, of primary age children in particular, are concerned about the value of the homework being set. This is not so much a criticism of the quality of the assignments but whether or not it is worth the trouble that it takes to get an eight-year-old, for example, to complete a sheet of sums by the morning. Is the conflict that ensues really a valuable preparation for the rigours of the secondary school or will it simply make the child jaded before his or her time?

Recent research has demonstrated that in the primary phase, homework played little or no part in improving the quality of learning of pupils. Despite the much vaunted claims for homework encouraging independent learning, the research found little evidence that this was so. The picture was different in the secondary sector, but even then it found that most homework, particularly finishing off what had been begun in class, had little worth. It appears that less frequent, more carefully targeted work is far more beneficial than the routinised weekly fare.

It is doubtful that such research will, however, make any impact on policy. For homework, like so much else, has become part of the anxiety culture about our children's future. As our own working hours increase well beyond those of our European neighbours, we look to introduce the work ethic to our children young. Slumping in front of the television after a hard day at the chalk face or playing with friends will not, we fear, prepare them for a competitive world. And so we look to more and more ways of structuring their leisure as well as their work time.

Now I am as neurotic as the next parent, and I do have to say that I think I learned as much about the Victorian suburb in which I live as my nine-year-old daughter when she studied it for a project in the summer holidays. But whether such anecdotal experiences should become the stuff of government policy is quite another matter. So before we clutter up our children's time with work instead of play, and before we demand that teachers' marking is measured by quantity rather by quality, we should pause. Yet perhaps, the only way to make this Government take stock is to remind politicians that the school children of today are the voters of tomorrow.

And I know one nine-year-old at least who has severe doubts about Mr Blair's views on homework.

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