LONDON — Mother-of-three Helen Hampton is worried that the British government is about to "turn my living room into a night school."
"My boys are age 4, 8, and 14," she explains, "and under the new homework rules I'll have to be available to each of them every night for different periods of time. I wonder how I am going to cope with fairy tales, spelling tests, and serious algebra, all at the same time."
Like other conscientious mothers, Helen agrees about the benefits regular homework can bring. But she says she will find it hard to cope with new guidelines for home study laid down by Education Secretary David Blunkett.
Starting next school year, all pupils in government-funded schools will be expected to supplement their school-time studies with regular homework on a graduated scale according to age, Secretary Blunkett announced in the spring.
Pupils age 4 to 5 will be expected to do 20 minutes; seven-to-nine-year-olds 40 minutes, including 20 minutes' reading; nine-to-eleven-year-olds 50 minutes; and 14-to-16-year-olds as much as 2-1/2 hours.
Homework comes to the fore following research on study habits and TV. In the past, say education leaders, youngsters devoted more time to daily after-school study. Today they say British children are performing at lower levels in math and reading compared to students in other countries.
New government figures show 51 percent of 10-year-olds spend three hours a night watching TV, while 4 out of 10 in the same age group do no homework at all. "Our aim is to get young children away from the TV screen and stuck into proper homework and reading," one of Blunkett's senior aides said.
Although figures vary from school to school, 13-year-old British students spend an average of 1-1/2 hours on homework. Those in private schools are likely to spend more time. But in Singapore, 13-year-olds spend on average 4.6 hours and Japanese students spend 2.3 hours per night, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research, a British research body that conducted a study of homework patterns around the world.
Under the new British guidelines, parents of very young children will be asked to read to them every night. "We want to provide sensible and realistic benchmarks," Blunkett told the House of Commons. "Until now many parents have been unsure whether children should normally expect to be [given] homework at all. This will remove the confusion."
Parents would not be compelled to comply, he said, but teachers' leaders point out that under the school inspection system, it will be possible for inspectors to pinpoint schools where the guidelines are not being observed. As a result, there is likely to be indirect pressure on parents to ensure that their children stick to the guidelines.
Helen Hampton is already beginning to plan how she will supervise "a triple stream of homework, and keep tabs on what little Richard and his brothers John and Terry are all supposed to do."
School teachers' representatives are critical of Blunkett's approach. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, calls the new regime "prescriptive" and says it "fails to recognize that conditions vary from school to school."
Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, complains that Blunkett's ideas "smack of Big Brother." "You can't run an entire country's school system from an office in London," he says.
No one doubts the government's determination to boost homework, however. Aware that in many homes, because of overcrowding, children can't find quiet study time, Prime Minister Tony Blair plans to spend 200 million (US $326 million) on 8,000 homework centers around Britain. The centers will be located in schools and libraries and will provide supervised after-class lessons. Blunkett also has plans for holding special courses during school holidays for pupils who need extra tuition.
Several private schools already have special study centers. A few government-funded schools have been trying the idea, too. At Langdon Park School, in east London, around 100 pupils use the study center every weekday evening. Irene Bowthorpe, who heads the center, says teachers give their time voluntarily. Some pupils, who could study at home, use the center because they find it easier to work there.
Debate about the pros and cons of homework shows no sign of waning. Blunkett cites a 1995 government report concluding that homework was important "at all stages of a child's education."
As plans go ahead to implement the guidelines, some education experts say that while they will add to parents' workload, they will yield advantages.
"Home study involves the parents and makes them part of a relationship between pupil and school," says David Reynolds, education professor and member of a government task force on mathematics. "It allows the parents to participate in the learning process of the child. It also helps to cut delinquency."
Britain has the youngest school starting age of all European countries. Some education experts are critical of Blunkett's decision to involve four- and five-year-olds in homework.
"Our children are being damaged by starting school too early and by being put through formal learning too soon," says Helen Penn of London's Institute of Education. "It's pretty frightening for a four-year-old to be in a big school. Adding homework on top of that is not a good idea."