Jayne Dowle: Homework eats up vital time for lessons in life

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GOODNESS me, what is the world coming to? I find myself agreeing with Michael Gove twice in a week. Not only are the Education Secretary and myself at one on the importance of children learning history, but we also seem to find ourselves concurring on the general pointlessness of homework.

He has scrapped national guidelines, introduced by Labour in 1998, which ordered set amounts per week, depending on the age of the child.

This included an hour a week for children aged five to seven, rising to half an hour a night for seven to 11-year-olds. By the time pupils reached 16, they were expected to be clocking up two-and-a-half hours a night.

From now on, headteachers will be allowed to set their own school policy at their discretion.

This is good news for parents, who should be able to work with the school through the governing body to create a sensible homework approach. And it’s good news for children, especially the younger ones who can get stressed by the very idea of doing it right.

And come on teachers – let’s be honest that it’s also good news for you. A massive pile of books to mark on a Sunday night, on top of all the preparation for the week ahead is never the ideal way to round off a weekend.

Now, I have issues with the very idea of homework. When I was at school, it blighted my life. With the exception of the odd history or English essay, I hated it. Hated the concept of being ordered to take something home and spend my precious free time doing it, just to prove a point.

Apparently, homework fosters self-reliance and discipline, but I was never one of those neat girls with an array of colour-coded folders and marker pens. I would leave it until the very last possible moment and scribble it down as fast as I could. Nightmare pupil, I know.

Revision for exams was one thing, I could see why this might be necessary. But drawing maps of Europe and colouring them in? Completing a list of equations when we had already covered them in class? Reciting the periodic table for kicks?

I recognise that there are certain basic things that all schoolchildren need to learn, but not at the expense of free time to explore the world around them, and just enjoy being young. And if someone had told me, at 16, that I was down for two-and-a-half hours a night, my reaction would have been to tell them to stuff it and walk away.

Over-burdening pupils like this can do no good, and all it does is set less-academic (or rebellious) youngsters up for failure.

It also eats into the already precious time most kids have to spend with their parents, and gives them limited opportunity to do something they might actually enjoy and be good at, such as sport, or music or drama.

So I have always been sympathetic to my children and their homework issues. With Jack, who is now nine, we went through one year in which all he seemed to do was bring home “work-sheets”. Clearly, his teacher, who has now left the school, knew she had a certain quota to fulfil, and this was her way of doing it.

Meanwhile, his friend at another school was doing a big project about his environment which he had to research himself. It soon became clear to me that a good teacher set interesting tasks to do within the guidelines, and a less creative one got round it with the help of a photocopier.

Getting Jack to fill in said work-sheets was even more painful than forcing him to sit down and write a thank-you letter. And who could blame him? Unless it involves sport, he is not a target-driven kind of child, so the whole concept of achieving 20 out of 20 means little to him.

His six-year-old sister, on the other hand, is an absolutely driven perfectionist. Ask her to write a two-page story and she comes up with eight, complete with illustrations. I admire her determination, but not every child works well under pressure.

If it was up to me, I wouldn’t bother with formal homework in primary school at all, until Year Six when it would be a good idea to get pupils ready for the rigours of secondary education.

Instead I would set interesting projects which stretch their curiosity and foster research skills outside the classroom. Local libraries are free, after all, and if we don’t use them, we lose them.

In some primary schools, such as the one my niece attends in Kent, there is a lot of reliance on completing work via the internet on sites such as MathsNet.

This is a great idea – if there is a laptop and a reliable broadband connection at home. But not all children are so lucky, so this can be counter-productive and create further barriers.

Far better to concentrate resources on effective teaching in the classroom for all – and make life the main thing that children learn about once they get home.