Homework, a war that lasts


The new school year has started, and with it the issues around homework are coming back to the fore. Can we really give students work to do outside the classroom in primary? This is a question that is regularly asked and on which a vagueness remains. While students may have readings to do or lessons to learn at home, teachers should in principle not give them written exercises .

The circular of December 29, 1956 indeed enacted “the abolition of homework or study”, with significant expectations which remain very current:
“Six hours of class well spent constitutes a maximum beyond which an additional work can only bring a tiredness detrimental to the physical health and the nervous balance of the children. Finally, written work, done outside the classroom, outside the presence of the teacher and in often poor material and psychological conditions, is of limited educational interest. Consequently, no written homework will be required of students outside the classroom. “
Although “imperative”, this circular will remain for the most part a dead letter … And it is by invoking precisely this that Jean-Pierre Chevènement justified his choice to attempt to officially “re-establish” the duties written in February 1985 (in order, he said, to regularize this state of affairs to better frame it…). In vain, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius opposed it .

Supervised studies

In September 1995, in the midst of a debate on school rhythms, François Bayrou (then Minister of National Education) decided that “to fight against the inequalities of family situations” studies conducted in class would henceforth replace “written homework”. home, “the pupils having only oral work to do or lessons to learn”. In reality, the practice of homework after class did not stop then, as we know. And yet parents in general – and especially some in particular – are not in the best position to supervise these times, in principle school.

At the start of the campaign for the 2007 presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy, referring to the “4 pm orphans” pleaded on TF1 in October 2006 for a generalization of supervised studies so that “all families in France can come and get their children. children once homework is done, at 6 pm ”. Point 10 of the legislative project for education adopted by the UMP in 2007 (for the legislature from 2007 to 2012) is a specific commitment in this direction, but even stronger (directed studies and not simply supervised). In fact, during the 2007-2012 five-year term, it will only be really tempted to set up this type of system in priority education areas.

Asked by Le Point at the end of May 2017 , the Minister of National Education Jean ‑ Michel Blanquer deplores the “sterile quarrel” between those who affirm that homework is essential to a quality of learning and those who see it as a risk of increasing social inequalities. “. For the minister, “both are obviously right. It is important that each child can work individually, in peace, to do exercises, repeat his lessons or exercise his memory and his sense of analysis ”. But he underlines that “it is also obvious that there are disparities between the pupils according to the family situation”.

For him, there must therefore be a “clear line: there must be homework and it must be possible to do it within the establishment thanks to a period of accompanied study”. The Minister announces that he will set up a system which will be called “homework done” . It will not be compulsory for the pupils: they will be voluntary or not to participate in this device where they can be accompanied by teachers but also by “volunteers” (that is to say retirees, students, associations. , young people in civic service). Each establishment will be free to find its solution.

At the start of the 2018 school year , SNDPEN (the main union for management staff) indicates that the numbers enrolled in this system are still limited: only about 7% of college students benefit from it. A report dated December 2019 from two inspectors general – Carole Sève and Nicole Ménager – underlines that the “homework done” system remains very diverse, both in its functioning and in its objectives, its stakeholders and its audience.

Decrease in study time and disparities

According to a “PISA under the microscope” study dating from the end of December 2014, French 15-year-old students are roughly in line with the OECD average in terms of the place of homework in the timetable, with 5 hours of time spent on homework each week (vs. 4.9). But the decrease over the years has been much more marked for French students than for all OECD students: a decrease of 1.7 hours per week from 2003 to 2012 (compared to an average decrease of 1 hour for all OECD countries).

In any event, it is far time where the period of study significantly exceeded that of class time: 4 hours of class per day only in the III e  Republic in the secondary; and at least 5 hours of daily study. A simple spotlight in the past allows us to become aware of a paradox which should challenge us: the “massification” of secondary education has been accompanied by the virtual disappearance of supervised studies. They nevertheless constitute an essential feature of secondary education under the III E  and IV E  Republics.

In France, 15-year-olds spend an average of 5 hours a week on homework. Shutterstock

Although secondary education while Adressat is essentially only a small socio-cultural elite (less than 5% of an age group in the III e  Republic, less than 10% in the IV e ) However, this one included a strong system of directed studies. These studies were provided by a body of “master-instructors” in the direction not only of boarding students, but also of half-boarders and day students. And this body disappeared (as well as almost all of the supervised study system) during the first wave of the “massification” of the school, which first concerned the college at the start of the Fifth  Republic.

The least that we could do for the future would be to question the paradox of this development, and reconsider the respective times of the courses and the learning aids or “homework” for all. Perhaps we should also wonder about the astonishing disparity that persists between classes and between pupils on the time devoted to these readings, exercises, writing, presentations or revisions.

About twenty years ago, Inspector General Roger-François Gauthier in his introduction to the very interesting April 2002 issue of the Revue internationale de Sèvres with the significant title: Student work at the heart of the tensions of school already underlined: “How not to be surprised to note that while the teaching schedules of the various disciplines are regulated to the nearest quarter of an hour at the national level following endless bargaining, the most complete vagueness reign with regard to the time prescribed by the teachers of these same subjects for the work of the pupils outside the framework of the class? ”

Author Bio: Claude Lelievre is a Teacher-Researcher in the History of Education, Honorary Professor at Paris-Descartes, University of Paris