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'We're lucky, we've got quite a large house'

Despite leaving school at 16, Richard Boyes, from Newcastle, has built a successful career as an environmental engineer. He is determined that his three sons will have no excuse for not making similar successes of their lives.

His son James's large bedroom contains a purpose-designed desk and lighting, books and a computer with Wifi - all intended to give James the best possible opportunity to focus on his homework.

James, 15, also has tutors in maths and science, each of whom comes in for an hour a week to help him with his GCSEs. Two hours' tutoring, combined with about five hours' homework and more work in lunch-hours at school, all add up to a lot of extra study.

Mr Boyes and his wife Dianne, a classroom assistant, attended a course run by the school on how they can help with their children's homework and make sure their sons have all the books they need.

"We want to make sure they've got every opportunity," Mr Boyes says. "Others have to share rooms and do their homework on the kitchen table while dinner is cooked. We're lucky, we've got quite a large house."

James attends Ponteland High in Northumberland, in the middle of an affluent neighbourhood across the local authority boundary from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The headteacher, Stephen Prandle, talks of "home learning" rather than "homework". Whatever you call it, parents say his pupils average 7.2 hours a week.

"Over the last 20 years or so, the debate about homework has raged," Mr Prandle says. "Most headteachers have supported it, but I no longer think homework has as much beneficial impact as I once thought."

Instead, he encourages pupils to interact with their families and friends outside school. For instance, in modern languages they might put yellow sticky notes around the house identifying things by their French or Spanish names.

"Once we leave formal classes, learning can take place in all kinds of ways. Hard revision for GCSEs or A-levels might take place in students' rooms, but you can't interact in your room. Learning needs to be alive."

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