As I drove home to Somerset from Oxford last Friday, there was a lively debate on the radio about the merits and demerits of assigning homework to children at infant school. The contributors – a mixture of parents and seasoned teachers – fell into three camps:

The first group, dominated by busy working parents, felt strongly that education belonged on the school side of the school gate and that having to supervise homework interfered with quiet, relaxed, bonding time with their children.

The second group, in which teachers featured quite strongly, felt that some homework was worthwhile and argued that by giving children homework, schools could free up time in the schedule for other, less academic activities such as sport and drama.

The third group, which was also a mixture of parents and teachers, argued that the most important thing a parent and child can do together in the evening is read, read, read.  All other learning for children up to the age of eight or nine should happen at school.

I cast my mind back to my own childhood. I was not assigned homework until I was eleven years old, and even then it was for just half an hour a night. But I do have vivid and happy memories of my Mum sitting with me and teaching me to read; and even happier ones of all of us five siblings clambering around her and listening to her reading to us.  Some wild aspect of my soul rebels against the thought of five-year-olds being tasked with homework night after night. It also rebels against the thought of six-year-olds being tested at a stage in life when, left to their own devices, children absorb so much not by formal learning, but by informal playing. The Scandinavian model, summarised in the phrase ‘play for seven years, learn for seven years’ speaks powerfully to me. When my children came home from infant school, I did not want them wrestling with the three rs, I wanted them making dens outside, or playing games together, or climbing up and falling out of trees – I wanted them to have time in their day to push boundaries, take risks, learn about safety and danger, be in their bodies as much as their minds.

And yes, I loved reading to my children, night in and night out; I also loved teaching them to read. But listening came first; listening, and learning how to follow the thread of a story. So, my vote goes to the third group, but with the proviso that I had rather encourage a small  child to feel happy to tell a story first; the reading can follow in its own good time.


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