Frances Rafferty reports as Tony Blair is first with the headlines on the politicians' favourite cheap, traditionalist proposal.
There are times when politicians are glad that schoolchildren do not have the vote. And the time when homework becomes the best thing since sliced bread is one of them.
This week the Government launched research to support the importance of homework on school performance. Its thunder, however, had already been stolen by Labour leader Tony Blair, who in a TV interview spoke about setting guidelines on the amount children should be doing.
It is known in the trade as a spoiler. Sunday's news programmes and the Monday papers were full of his recommendations - half an hour a night for primary pupils and an hour-and-a-half for secondary pupils - despite the fact that David Blunkett had announced them more than a year ago. Mr Blair was reported as launching a schools crusade, with a wide-ranging education Bill the priority of a Labour Government.
This prompted a rebuttal from the Education and Employment Secretary and a rather silly game ensued in which the two parties called each other copy-cats.
In the interview on BBC's Breakfast with Frost, Mr Blair outlined his plans: nursery education for all four-year-olds to replace the Government's voucher scheme, base-line assessments in primary schools, a national literacy target, home-school contracts, teacher-training reforms and more.
"Our kids aren't doing the amount of homework that they need and we want a special set of guidelines for homework in primary schools, for homework in secondary schools," he said. A Labour Government would dedicate National Lottery money to homework centres for children, he said.
Advocating that children should do more homework sounds tough and traditionalist. It fits into the rhetoric of making parents more responsible. It is also cheap. And although 14-year-old Jonathan Dalton was moved to write to a national paper claiming Labour's recommendations would result in a 42-and-a-half-hour week for pupils, his ire does not translate into a loss of votes for Mr Blair.
Prince Charles also got in on the act, saying that the Prince's Trust hoped to assist 1,000 national study centres providing after-school learning for disadvantaged children. The scheme has been running successfully for some time, with full encouragement from the Prince, yet this was the first time it grabbed headlines.
The Government's proposals, announced two days after Mr Blair's, did come with the promise of money. Schools minister Robin Squire said a grant of Pounds 60,000 is to be used to establish and develop homework initiatives in 12 schools. The money would be given to Education Extra, an organisation which supports after-school activities.
Kentish Town C of E primary school, in north London, will use the money to fund an after-school mathematics project aimed at Years 1 and 2, with classes for parents. Parcroft junior school, Yeovil, Somerset, will set up an information technology project for pupils, parents and the local community.
Mr Squire also launched a report by Michael Barber, professor of education and dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education (see story, right). In seven schools out of a sample of 14 cited by the Office for Standards in Education the pupils did more homework and participated in more after-school activities.
Mr Squire did not recommend hours of homework, despite the report showing that the OFSTED-cited schools mostly did six or more hours per week.
He said: "It is not the role of the Government to prescribe how much homework should be set or in which subjects. This would be totally impractical and would be an insult to the professionalism of teachers."
This swipe at the Labour recommendations hit home. Labour may have presented its homework credentials first, but the Tories had the last laugh. "Strangely enough, I believe most teachers will find the Conservative Government's approach more professional and realistic than the high-handed approach by Tony Blair and the Labour party," said Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.