Monday, 5 March 2012

Gove's homework muddle

Has Michael Gove started to go soft? The thought went through my mind as I heard the gleeful way in which the coalition's spinners promoted their 'scrapping' of Labour's 1998 homework guidelines over the weekend. In truth, I had not known that any school rigidly adhered to these guidelines. They were a good example of the nudge theory that the former No 10 guru Steve Hilton liked so much. They sent a message rather than setting a straitjacket. But then Hilton's off.

Nor was it their primary purpose to require schools to set a certain amount of homework. they were intended to give some helpful information to parents about what to expect as much as to encourage all schools to set regular homework - something that is part of the new Ofsted framework, incidentally.

Directgov still hadn't caught up with Gove's fit of the vapours this morning, and was still suggesting to parents that they wreck their children's childhood by reading with them for ten minutes a day. Ten more minutes for CBBC or computer games, then. However, the emphasis is on quality as much as time taken.This is how the Government's website presents the guidelines to parents:

The emphasis is on how homework helps your child to learn, rather than on whether it takes a certain amount of time.
For example, some children will work quicker than others and get more done in less time. The rough guidelines for primary school children are:
  • Years 1 and 2: one hour per week
  • Years 3 and 4: 1.5 hours per week
  • Years 5 and 6: 30 minutes per day
The guidelines for secondary school children are:
  • Years 7 and 8: 45 to 90 minutes per day
  • Year 9: one to two hours per day
  • Years 10 and 11: 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day
Your child shouldn’t be expected to spend much longer on homework than the guide times. It doesn’t matter if activities don't take as long as the guide times as long as they are useful. Schools should organise homework carefully so that children aren't asked to do too much on any one day.

The website went on to point out that 

All homework activities should be related to work that children are doing at school. However, homework should not always be written work. For younger children it will largely be:
  • reading with parents or carers
  • informal games to practice mathematical skills
For older children homework activities may include:
  • reading
  • preparing a presentation to the class
  • finding out information
  • making something
  • trying out a simple scientific experiment
  • cooking
It doesn’t matter if activities don't take as long as the guide times as long as they are useful.

In other words, these guidelines were more about giving parents a sense of what was reasonable, not imposing some straitjacket on schools. Gove hasn't been shy about telling schools to adopt uniforms, wading into local debates in Devon for example, yet giving parents a sense of what's reasonable with homework is too much because it upsets Tory luvvies like Kirstie Allsop. 

I doubt the TV presenter's children will be short of books or other educational stimulation. The guidelines weren't really for her benefit, as Chris McGovern noted in the Telegraph: "The danger is that schools will use this as an excuse to dilute the amount of homework. Middle-class children will do their homework anyway. Guidance for children who are coming from more deprived backgrounds is probably more important.”

The homework guidelines were introduced precisely for the same reasons that Gove is so keen to impose his straitjacket on the curriculum: to bring state schools closer to the expectations of private schools, and to recognise that children who read with their parents at home during primary school or who do regular homework when they are older are more likely to get on than those who don't.

So what Gove actually means when he says he is scrapping the guidelines is anybody's guess. Does the Government think homework is a passe concept? Apparently not. The DFE says that “Homework is part and parcel of a good education, along with high quality teaching and strong discipline." I'm not sure that was the message that came through yesterday. 

One can only assume his spinner was short of a story for the Sunday hacks (I know how it is: I've been there). Yet by alighting on this, he has simply delighted those who think homework is bad for you and caused potential confusion among parents. Not sure I'd call that a result.

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