Homework Hell

My seven-year-old son is slumped over his A4 yellow 'home learning' book. He sharpens his pencil repeatedly, scattering the shavings on the floor.

It's a familiar Saturday morning scene. All he wants to do is build Lego planets, examine his treasured collection of shells, sellotape sticks together, anything that doesn't involve ruled lines and a margin.

Instead, he sits there kicking his feet against the desk while I try to feign some enthusiasm for this week's home learning, which as we both know is just a half-hearted euphemism for homework - though I'm not sure he knows what a euphemism is yet. My attempt at enthusiasm fails and I resort to telling him to 'just get it over with.'

His first task is to find some magnetic objects. Under normal circumstances he'd probably quite enjoy this, if only he didn't have to tabulate the results afterwards, which pretty much takes all the fun out of it.

Next, he has to write out his 8 times table, a gratuitous, pointless task as a) he seems to spend half his time at school doing the same thing and b) did it for last week's homework too - sorry, home learning. He manages it with the kind of gusto I reserve for picking up old pants from the floor.


I don't blame my son for not wanting to do his homework. At his age, I thought homework meant tidying your bedroom. I didn't have so much as a spelling test until I reached secondary school.


Sue Palmer is a literacy specialist and author of Toxic Childhood (the updated edition of which is out in February) and believes, that aside from reading, there's no evidence that homework is beneficial.

She says it should not be introduced until children reach the age of 10 or eleven, and then only when there's a good reason for giving it.

''As a teacher, I hated having to give homework simply because it was 'school policy' - and children know when a task is set for pointless reasons. Children need time around the edges of the school day to play, to develop interests of their own, and to spend relaxed time interacting with their families.

"Homework gets in the way of all these important activities and often causes tension in the family. There's also the problem that some parents become overly concerned that their child 'gets it all right', and mums and dads frequently end up doing most of the work themselves.''

Sue is also the Director of the Save Childhood Movement which was formed last year by a coalition of education experts in response to the increasing pressure of the schooling system.

Its 'Too Much Too Soon' Campaign claims children in England are starting formal learning too early, that the value of their creative and expressive play is being undermined, and that they are subject to developmentally inappropriate pressures that are damaging to their long-term health and wellbeing.

And it seems homework only adds to these pressures. What's more, according to Dr Amanda Gummer, psychologist and founder of FundamentallyChildren.com, there is no evidence of any cognitive benefit.

''Recent research has shown that beyond reinforcing spellings and times tables, there's no lasting benefit to children at GCSE level and beyond of having done lots of homework in primary.

"For me it is more a case of what it stops them doing. Physical exercise has been reduced in most primary schools so it's vital for both physical and mental health that children aren't prevented from being active outside of school hours by overly demanding homework.'' So why do schools insist on setting it - often from a precariously young age? Simon Bignell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology from the University of Derby, believes it's to do with status rather than value.

''There has been a trend to emphasise not only the child's individual achievement but also the school's achievement in league tables and exams. Homework can be seen as a way of squeezing out performance in these measures without much thought of how it is benefiting the individual child.''

My son seems to be a testament to that. Our Saturday morning continues with a book review. ''What's a book review?'' he groans.

I'm not sure if he's just being facetious or if he genuinely doesn't know. The trouble is, despite all my best efforts (believe me, I've tried to pass on my love of reading) he's just not massively into books - unless they're about planets or eclipses or rocks - and only if he doesn't have to write about them afterwards.

We've tried everything from the awesome David Walliams to the awful Astrosaurs series (spoiler alert: dinosaurs with daft names save the day in outer space) but he'd still rather look at something with pictures of actual imploding galaxies.

I tell him he can write a review of '5,000 Awesome Facts' - one of his favourites. He does it begrudgingly and badly and I wrestle my inner spellcheck not to intervene.

It seems to take hours and only reinforces my feeling that homework is a miserable waste of time, denting any natural love of learning, while eating into the weekend and my patience.

Simon Bignell agrees. He says it's not just about the short term effects, but the long-term consequences too.

''Too much homework can lead to child stress that in turn can lead to negative attitudes to school and academic work. This may influence attendance or decisions about going on to college and university. Schooling is one very important form of education but most learning actually happens in the home environment.''

If only homework was fun, or play-based, or outdoor focused. But as Dr Gummer points out, that rarely seems to be the case. ''I've never come across homework that sets out to teach a child empathy or how to help them win or lose well.''

So what should homework for younger children look like? Dr Gummer suggests: ''Build a den, have a caveman tea party or go on a scavenger hunt and find as many things as possible beginning with the letter 'b.' ''

I'm sure my seven year old would agree, so next Saturday we might just give one of those things a try. Sod the yellow book. Which leaves just one question: how to break the news to his teacher.

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