I genuinely don’t know what I think about the comment by Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (and doesn’t ‘general secretary’ have a really odd ring about it these days?) – she remarked that “Our policy is that primary school children should not be doing homework. Children should be out playing, climbing trees, and scraping their knees.”
I have no idea whether or not Mary Bousted is more like Beryl The Peril than one of the Four Marys, but I do know that I liked nothing less in my childhood than climbing trees, and I was especially averse to grazing, scratching, scraping or in any way damaging my knees, for the simple and pathetic reason that it caused them to hurt. Now before you start, I am not coming over all Health-and-Safety on you. I think children should be allowed to rummage and rampage and generally be let loose (obviously, providing the CCTV cameras are working, joke), but I don’t see what this has to do with homework, which isn’t after all the exact opposite of having fun. I used to enjoy doing my homework (I was at a boarding-school, so it was actually away-from-homework, and I was forced to do it with my fellow-incarcerees, in rows, for an hour each evening, under the forlorn eye of which ever teacher had drawn the short straw that day, and was unable to head for the local boozer).
In fact, I think I used to look forward to it. What could be better after a hard day slaving over some Latin conjugations, interspersed with sporty sessions in which I was obliged to attempt to climb a rope (not unlike a tree, really, although bereft of fruit and branches), and to scuff many parts of my body, including my knees, in the interest of mens sana in corpore sano, either in a ‘game’ or by protracted genuflection on very dodgy hassocks, than to do a bit of writing and adding up? It did it for me.
What I think Mary Bousted was doing was speaking, from the heart, about the absolute, chronic and insane obsession with testing – with SATS and with key stages – that goes on. SATS have no impact on anything other than time, and no other outcome than a headline in a local newspaper, in which a head teacher grins happily, surrounded by scrubbed-up urchins, or, in extreme cases, a small note to the effect that a local school has done “quite well”, which is code for “it was chaos in there”. This doesn’t happen much, if at all, because, contrary to the private opinion of journalists, schools and hospitals in this country are not run by nutcases, just dedicated human beings.
Oddly enough, during my continuing cleansing of my Augean office, I came across a couple of 1961 issues of Bunty – why shouldn’t I have? – which was what brought the four Marys to mind. In a cracking episode, the four were split up because Marys Cotter and Simpson had had their history papers accidentally pushed to the back of a drawer, and they were therefore split up and demoted to the Lower Third. Consternation! But there was a happy ending, of course.