This political flannel will not wash

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer questions the increased stress being placed on homework

It is very tempting to solve the reality of national educational under-achievement by piling on more studying at the end of the school day in the form of homework.

All the political leaders clearly have high hopes for homework. Aided and abetted by parents' signatures on paper contracts, homework is to become the new social cure-all. At a stroke, children will learn more, perform and behave better, and parents will get drawn into their child's education. So far, so marvellous.

But this policy is not just about giving children skills. There is a hidden social agenda. More homework will also keep children out of harm's way, away from the subversive influence of television (Neighbours is sometimes cited) and the unlawful temptations of the streets. At a stroke, children will become less violent and parents will rediscover their responsibility. Is this realistic? Can it work? More to the point, would it not be better to address the real problems more directly?

Single solutions to complex problems are rarely effective. The only substantive change included in Labour's homework policy will be homework for seven to 11-year-olds - hardly earth-shattering. Mishandled, it could have the opposite effect. Without appropriate accompanying guidelines suggesting exactly how parents manage, support, or "get involved with" homework, school demands for extra studying could lead to more nagging and more family conflict. All teachers will tell you that both conflict and pushy, critical parents produce discouraged children.

That's the first problem. The second relates to content. Homework will only advance learning if it is carefully planned and reinforces and extends the work of the school day.

Studies have shown that the work set is not always this focused. The more teachers are required to set finite amounts of homework, the more it is likely to be merely time-filling. For young children, even those of junior age, school can, or should, be tiring. It is appropriate to ask how much they should be expected to concentrate at home on continued learning if they have been fully stretched at school. And if they have not, why not? Where does the problem of under-achievement lie?

If, on the other hand, homework is designed merely to establish good work habits and a sense of responsibility and self-management in children, let's make that clear; but this does not require an evening crammed full of homework. If it is intended to progress learning, for example through requiring reading practice for younger children, aren't schools already asking for this? What difference will the label "homework" or signed contracts make to parents' capacity and willingness to deliver?

Children who are glued to TV monitors or who wander the streets at night will tend not to have favourite pastimes or leisure interests to occupy them and through which they define and understand themselves and their full range of abilities. It is this consequential undeveloped self-knowledge, self-belief and self-understanding that can lead to poor motivation, low self-esteem and chronic unfulfilled potential.

These children will spend less time talking to their parents, too, so their social skills and sense of parental commitment and interest will also be less developed. Spending more time sitting in front of schoolbooks at home might keep eyes off the television screen, but it will not help children to discover and explore wider talents and interests.

We cannot elide the truth that a critical factor in determining success or failure at school is the quality of a child's key relationships, and that this is evident in children's behaviour by age five.

Instead of piling on the homework and wrapping relationships in official-sounding contracts, let's focus on each of the issues and problems at source. Parental responsibility, yes. Political flannel, no.

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is an educational and parenting consultant, and the author of Positive Parenting: Raising children with self-esteem

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