A FEW years ago I found some of my old school jotters and leafed through them curiously, expecting lessons long-buried to come leaping off the page back to me.

It was instead very boring gibberish, page after baffling page of equations, tables, French phrases and historical dates. None of it had gone into my long-term memory. The most interesting material to me at more than 20 years’ remove was the graffiti I’d scrawled on the covers, a sure sign of a distracted mind. Hundreds of hours of study wasted, much of it at home

That pulsing red light of homework had meant never quite being able to relax over the weekend. As a child, I’d come to terms with the idea that I was going to have to study subjects at school each day in which I had no real interest, but I resented that these same subjects were allowed to colonise my free time, my compliance assured through threat of punishment. More often than not, I would complete homework in a panic at the last minute, a jotter open on the bus to school or in the toilets at break-times just before class. Of course none of it went in.

So I read with interest recently that Inverlochy Primary School in Fort William has trialled a homework ban, in favour of books and playing, for which parents themselves voted. A subsequent poll of nearly 1000 people by The Telegraph found an astonishing 83 per cent answering Yes to the question: “Should all primary schools scrap homework?”

We might ask what parents seem to intuitively understand which many policy-makers don’t. The only official Scottish Government publication on homework dates back to the Lib Dem/Labour coalition of 2004. Since the SNP governments haven’t updated it since, one can only conclude that they agree with it. The benefits of homework it extols for pupils include “learning how to organise and manage time”, “taking responsibility for learning” and “practising and building on what has been learned at school”. But is this really the case?

According to a 2014 study by the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), British 15-year-olds spend an average of 4.9 hours per week on homework, the same as the overall OECD average, far less than children from Shanghai (13.8 hours) but far more than those from Finland (2.8). Interestingly, Finnish pupils were still able to perform well on academic tests.

This example bears out the research of John Hattie, author of the book Visible Learning, who in 2015 told Radio 4 that his 15-year-long meta-analysis of more than 250 million students had led him to conclude that homework has no effect whatsoever on primary school children and only a negligible effect on secondary school-age pupils. He believes that 5-10 minutes spent each day revising what has been done in school achieves the same effect as 1-2 hours’ work. Pushy middle-class parents, then, who demand homework for their children, or hope to gain academic advantage for them by placing them in schools with strict homework policies, would seem to be on a fool's errand.

When I became an English teacher in my early 20s, I carried over the dislike of homework I’d felt as a pupil into practice. Unless I could avoid it, I only made reading into homework, or set lightweight activities such as interviewing a grandparent about their memories. Sometimes, though, it couldn’t be avoided, curriculum and exam pressures being what they are, and the pupils had to complete essays for which we hadn’t time in class, even though I was well aware that I’d spent my own childhood evading homework in favour of writing stories and reading novels.

Nobody had forced me to do these things, which was precisely why I wanted to do them. There was no punishment for failure to complete them. Even the less obviously imaginative aspects of my nights and weekends – playing football or just palling around with friends – either kept me fit or provided valuable life experience. My debut novel, Boyracers, was pretty much about all the things I got up to at nights after school was finished.

So not only did the homework I was set singularly fail to achieve anything, but what I’d done to avoid it actually created my long-term career. Lo and behold, because I loved books, and wanted to chase the rabbit of my curiosity down the hole of reading, over time I organically learned about science, politics and history anyway. It had nothing to do with homework.

Only much later did I discover there was a term for this: structured procrastination. This theory was coined in a 1995 essay of the same name by the philosophy professor John Perry. Structured procrastination is the process whereby the brain focuses on and is willing to complete certain tasks as a means of avoiding higher-priority but more unwelcome ones. We wash the dishes or put up those shelves in the spare room because we can’t face up to filing our tax return, but the dishes and shelves still needed done. That time wasn’t wasted. When I was young, I wrote stories and poems because completing German verb tables bored me to death. I’m not a German speaker now, but I am a writer.

The nutritional benefits of reading and writing, as a replacement for homework, are obvious. What if children go in the opposite direction, and choose recreation instead? Perhaps it matters what they are up to when they are not doing homework. Inverlochy Primary School and the Telegraph poll are careful to position reading and play as the alternative to homework, but how do we define “play”? Traditionally, one thinks of imaginative world-building or outdoor exploration, but is that what most young people would truly choose if homework were abolished? It could be plausibly argued that children have even forgotten how to engage in this form of play, and that homework, with all the discipline and focus it requires, may be a vital inoculation against the barrage of screens, computer games, YouTube videos, celebrity culture and social media which dominates young lives. Benedict Carey’s 2014 book How We Learn busts much of the received wisdom that study happens best at scheduled times, behind a desk, for hours on end, but even he rejects the idea that “freeing the inner slacker” is a legitimate learning strategy if all it means is vegging out in front of the telly.

Indeed, it has been a societal fear since the advent of television in homes that we have become dumbed-down and infantilised by mass culture, encapsulated by Neil Postman’s 1985 tract Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Showbusiness. Postman posits contemporary life as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World made real, in which we are seduced by the commodified pleasures of television, with all its slickly-edited images and pre-packaged narratives. This, Postman claims, has given rise to the shallow political culture of the soundbite, the televised rally, the President-as-TV-star. Postman’s theory has a basis in Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that the “medium is the message”, and in the era of Donald Trump, fake news and wall-to-wall reality TV, it’s a convincing one. In this context, homework has value as a shield against a world of virtue-free sensation and endless distraction, into which children would default when left to their own (hand-held) devices.

Such a view has been challenged, however, by the technology journalist Steven Johnson, in his 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter. Johnson directly contradicts Postman, claiming that the human brain becomes eventually bored by simple pleasures, and demands an ever-greater degree of complexity and depth from them. He points towards the redundancy of early computer games such as Pac-Man and Pong not on technological grounds but neurological ones. No child could be satisfied playing Space Invaders when the infinite, problem-solving worlds of Assassin’s Creed and Minecraft exist, with all the dedication and brain-energy required to explore them. According to Johnson, we never consume television or computer games passively, which is why after a while we need to move on to something more difficult and rewarding. We need not be afraid, as Postman is, by the dopamine hit provided by cultural pleasures, for when it runs out through diminishing returns, we are pushed forwards into material of greater complexity, a positive “addiction”, if you will.

No-one’s going to convince me that television, YouTube or video games will do more for deep thought than reading a book will (though Johnson doesn’t claim as much) but it’s certainly feasible that they’ll do more than homework can. In this scenario, a school pupil who watches Game Of Thrones in the evenings, tracking its vast network of narrative strands and making predictions about its outcome, perhaps even investigating fan theories online or reading the Byzantine novels as follow-up work, can potentially experience far more cognitive benefits than he or she would from homework. Enforced study during leisure time rarely provides a dopamine reward – indeed, in most cases it provokes resentment and thus no desire to pursue the subject any further. Clearly, this is why homework failed to make me a more effective learner when I was young, whereas a programme of reading which I set myself, pursuing my own tastes and pleasures, did the trick instead.

This is what we might call “child-centred learning”, something to which our educational system pays lip-service without actually following it to its logical conclusion: that once the child has become literate and numerate they should be in direct control of what they want to learn on any given day. It’s the philosophy of Steiner schools, admittedly controversial to some, which reject a standard curriculum and timetable for a child-driven exploration of subjects.

It’s possible even to extrapolate this into a political theory about emancipation. The left-wing educationalist Paolo Freire, in The Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (1970), explains that the way pupils are taught, not just what they are taught, ends up reproducing class-based and colonial systems. This is one reason why children from less privileged backgrounds are routinely failed by conventional education: the systems themselves are designed in the image of the select few who have benefited from them. It’s not a stretch to imagine that these are the same people who actually enjoyed having their home-life filled with yet more schoolwork or whose parents could afford private tuition. This is a class issue. To truly liberate those disenfranchised by current schooling, Freire argues: “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.” This is not so different, then, from pursuing your own programme of reading or cultural tastes. Freire’s radical philosophy is the true end-point of pupil-centred learning, not examinations about subjects set from on high.

This is all perhaps best encapsulated in James Kelman’s 1989 novel, A Disaffection. It features a Glaswegian teacher of English, Patrick Doyle, a socialist who encourages the kids to think freely about the system which oppresses them while he is being forced by that very system to mould them into shape.

This is the thing about homework: when you pull the thread of it, so many of the assumptions about traditional education unravel. The pressures to achieve good exam results – and thus find one’s place in the league table of life – distorts the entire purpose of learning, which is to increase one’s knowledge, understanding and, crucially, desire to learn more. Secondary school often kills that desire. What are we to make, for example, of a 2014 poll which found that a quarter of parents end up doing their children’s homework for them? Are these concerned adults who want to alleviate the mental stress on their little ones, or are they trying to cheat their way towards good grades for their children? Either way it defeats the very point of homework.

Let’s be also honest about what that point is. Education is only partly about learning, but mainly about socialisation. We hear constantly from the right-wing media about “standards”, which on their terms means successfully training pupils in how to sit exams, not encouraging free thought, a critical mind or imagination. When employers look at a pupil’s grades they don’t necessarily always see proof of intelligence but they do see a willingness to conform to what it is required by authority: turning up, causing no problems, and applying oneself to boring, routine demands. In other words – to borrow an Irvine Welsh title – if you liked school, you’ll love work.

The discipline, sacrifice and concentration required for homework – prioritising task-completion above leisure – may indeed be of long-term benefit in preparing pupils for the workplace, but that’s because most employment is itself soul-destroying.

The true purpose of homework, over and above its content, is to remind young people that their time is never really their own, but belongs to a greater authority. They hear this message loud and clear, which is why their resentment is inevitable, anticipated and surmounted through punishment. “The dog ate my homework” is the most miniature and comic of rebellions. If we are expecting pupils to be happy learners – if we are expecting them to actually learn – then their free time needs to be exactly that: free.

Alan Bissett is a novelist, playwright and former teacher of English