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What do kids learn from homework? Not very much, it would seem

By Jane Graham

Published 04/09/2015

Tough lesson: some children find homework an endless chore
Tough lesson: some children find homework an endless chore

As the summer dream which began, as ever, with high hopes of endless '76 sunshine, now fades in a cloud of rain-misted disappointment, kids heading back to school are training their brains back into term-time mode in the time-honoured British tradition. By anxiously factoring into their lives the misery of having their freedom, fun, and family time stolen by adult operatives of the state.

This week, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers told the BBC it had "serious concerns" about the amount of homework schools dole out, particularly with regards to primary school. It seems there's little evidence that homework is beneficial to children aged between four and 10 years old, and an increasing amount of research suggesting it might actually be harmful.

My first response to this news was a beautiful and rare feeling of empirically-supported smugness, because I've been banging on in an unattractive manner about this issue for seven years, since my first-born entered the state system.

Primary school homework seems to mainly consist of filling out time-consuming brain-numbing worksheets to prove you were paying attention in arithmetic, or painstakingly writing out in curriculum-acceptable handwriting various correctly spelled words.

The somnambulant nature of repetitive, regurgitative work like this encourages the participant to switch off half-way through; thus, while the hand carries on moving, the brain generally turns to The Simpsons or SpongeBob Squarepants. The other kind of primary school homework is reading an expert-approved book out loud with a parent (nb: words cannot express how enthusiastically I agree with Armando Iannucci, who last week defined experts in subjects like media and the arts as "people with expensive opinions").

This kind of homework is well-intentioned, but can backfire. For young children who struggle with reading, it becomes a nightly chore, boring at best, traumatising at worst; books are psychologically associated with mental agony, humiliation and time-wasting.

For kids turning into rabid readers at home, hours that could have been dedicated to reading cool, challenging books about killer skeleton detectives are instead spent ploughing through the "class book" (usually an unfunny politically correct tale involving very square families having mishaps during picnics, before Roald Dahl and David Walliams finally get a look-in, around primary 4 or 5).

In both cases, the main effect of homework is to make children resentful of teachers and school, the Government-sponsored ruiner of fun. These aren't the only problems with homework for young children. For every kid who rattles through that night's tasks in 10 minutes then heads off to kick a ball about the garden, or pimp up their Minecraft rollercoaster, there's another forced to give up extra-curricular dancing or judo to make time for filling in worksheets.

Worst of all is the spirit-dampening impact of rote-style homework to initially eager, curious, spirited and imaginative little minds. This works alongside many aspects of primary school, designed to cope with the glorious diversity of children by rewarding conformity and punishing awkward but often brilliant, potentially ground-breaking individuality.

John Cleese, Gary Oldman, Bear Grylls, Chris Hoy, and significantly, leading children's writers Michael Murpurgo, Michael Rosen and Anthony Horowitz, are just some of the rather successful people who told me recently they failed to shine at school and battled to hang on to everything worthwhile inside themselves while the education process worked to iron out their obsessions, peculiar senses of humour or physical restlessness.

There are teachers out there who seek out and embrace each pupil's unique talents and enthusiasms. It's not about homework, it's about patience and liking kids.

Let those guys call the shots, instead of the currently favoured self-aggrandising, self-serving, stoopid system.

Series shows true worth of women

My new heroine (for this week) is the historian Dr Amanda Foreman (above), presenter of the joyously entitled BBC series The Ascent of Woman.

Yes, there are a few holes in her arguments about the see-saw of power and respect awarded to women over the last few thousand years (wow, the ancient Greeks really were not wise to the wonder-women among them). But her main point, that what has long been celebrated as the rise of civilisation has hidden a history of suppressing half of the population, is potent.

Even better is the notion of women being a spirited force of rebellion and creativity seen to threaten the status quo. Yup, true dat.

The picture that shocked us all

There have been few photographs in the last decade which have had the impact of the little Syrian boy whose tiny limp body, clad in blue shorts and lace-up shoes, was washed up on a Turkish beach this week.

I’m not sure any picture has left me literally shaking in the same way.

Of course, there have been many tragedies and losses in this horrific refugee crisis, but if it takes just one powerful complacency-assaulting picture to rouse the British people into shaming David Cameron into compassionate action, then, as well as one of the worst, this might also be one of greatest photographs that has  ever been taken.

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