Sacr bleu! So I'll have no homework at all?

26th October 2012 at 01:00
Campaigners in the UK welcome the French president's ban plan

They are famous for their 35-hour working weeks and long lunch breaks dripping with Camembert and bonhomie. To the outsider, life as a French worker seems like a holiday compared to the intense work ethic of les pays anglo-saxons.

Yet French schoolchildren - in the absence of union representation - have always stood outside this easy-going scenario. The country's school system is famed for its long days, traditional teaching methods and poetry by rote.

But France's new socialist president, Francois Hollande, has given them one reason to be cheerful in a move that has stirred up the prickly issue again in the UK. As part of overarching education reforms, he wants to ban homework for all primary school pupils in a bid to make the system fairer for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not have support at home.

Instead, pupils will complete their "personal work" in designated class time, overseen by a teacher, between 3.30pm and 4pm.

Campaigners in Britain have cheered the move, which is in effect the enforcement of a 1956 French law banning written homework in primaries that has largely been ignored by teachers. Margaret Morrissey, founder of parenting information website ParentsOutloud, said: "I don't agree with a lot of things about Francois Hollande, but I do agree with this.

"I really think that homework in every sort of school should be axed. Children are in school every day of the week, and I don't see why children can't learn sufficiently in all that time.

"I have a 14-year-old granddaughter who gets home at 5pm, and then she has an hour and a half of homework. Schools are really pushing them to the point where they go into close-down."

Ms Morrissey added that "projects" set for primary school children during the holidays "defeated the point" of the holidays and required a lot of effort on the part of parents. "No one is ever going to convince me of the value of homework," she said.

A 2008 survey by teaching union the ATL found that 94 per cent of primary teachers set their pupils homework, but also highlighted teachers' concerns that not all children had the support, space or facilities to do it.

Nansi Ellis, head of education policy and research at the ATL, which has called for a ban on primary homework in the past, said: "This is a brave move by Francois Hollande because among certain parents homework can be popular. But it is important to balance children's fun and enjoyment of life."

She added that parents could find out about what their children were learning at school through parents' evenings and school websites.

Several studies by the ATL suggest that poverty has a major impact on whether pupils are able to complete their homework. However, many teachers and schools have argued that homework is the "public face" of the school and is demanded by many parents.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, scrapped official guidelines on homework in English schools in March in an effort to reduce bureaucracy and "free up" headteachers. The guidance, introduced under Labour but criticised for interrupting precious family time and placing a burden on parents, recommended an hour a week for five to seven-year-olds, gradually rising to 2.5 hours per night for pupils aged between 14 and 16.

Academics have compared Mr Hollande's policy to what independent schools already do. Professor Susan Hallam, from the University of London's Institute of Education and author of Homework: The Evidence, said: "In a way it is just like prep in private schools, where homework is supervised on the premises.

"It does iron out some of the inequalities, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds can benefit.

"If this (Mr Hollande's policy) means that when the children leave school, that's their time, I think it will be an interesting experiment."

Although there is little conclusive evidence to suggest that homework boosts the grades of primary pupils, other benefits - such as improving the relationship between home and school - would be lost, Professor Hallam added.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said he thought Mr Hollande's plans were a little draconian, and that it was useful for primary pupils to have small amounts of homework. "It's good for children to do it without the school there to impose it; they learn time management and self-discipline," he said.

In their own time

94.4% of primary teachers set homework.

58.5% set homework once a week.

25.3% set homework several times a week.

92.9% of teachers cite lack of support at home as a reason for pupils' failure to complete homework.

Photo credit: Getty

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