Thursday, 18 October 2012

Is homework elitist?

Yesterday the BBC Radio 4 PM news programme spoke to the former French Minister for Education who wants to ban 'homework', instead he suggests the last 30 minutes of each school day should be set aside for children to complete 'homework'. His reasons were that homework 'is a source of inequality between children' because it is unfair that some children get extra help with homework from their parents or tutors employed by parents, but other children have no assistance. He also said 'children are children, the school day is very long, it is better for children to be free after school so they grow up better.' Astonishing, imagine Michael Gove expressing the sentiment that children need time to just be children!

The programme discussed the idea with a teacher of English in Paris who spoke for one of the French teaching unions and also the Master of Wellington College. In general the French teaching unions are in favour of the proposal, they see homework as a factor widening the divide between children from poorer families compared to those from more affluent ones. They also think homework can potentially be divisive to the relationship between parents and school, for example if the parent cannot help the child with the homework it may make the parent feel inadequate and more difficult for them to have an 'equal' relationship with the teachers. The Master of Wellington College said homework ought to be enjoyable, give children the chance to practice working alone and encourage curiosity, wonder and enquiry.

It is not for me to comment on the merits of otherwise of homework, I want to point out that the French appear to be aware that aspects of education can worsen inequality. By contrast in the UK the debate is about how excellence in educational achievement is a route out of poverty (viz another news story yesterday about top universities encouraging applications from school pupils in more disadvantaged places).

By talking to children and young people about school, Children North East has discovered lots of ways in which schools unwittingly discriminate against poorer children - obvious things like the cost of school uniform and school trips but more subtle ones like administration of free school meals, assumptions made by teachers about shared life experience of the class (e.g. that everyone has been on holiday, everyone has been to a museum or has access to the internet at home) and prejudices about children's families, 'what do you expect, just look at the parents.' We have spoken to a few schools about this and they have been shocked, having never considered it. We have a small grant this year from the VONNE Policy and Representation Partnership to develop and pilot a toolkit for schools to audit themselves and hopefully make changes for the better.

Tomorrow I will be a panel guest at the Schools North East Summit and have a short opportunity to speak briefly about child poverty to a great many headteachers in our region.

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