Education Quandary

Homework causes misery in our house. I try to insist that our son gets it done, but I understand why he wants to be outside kicking a ball around with his friends on these light evenings. He's 12 and not at all organised. What can I do to avoid these battles, and how much does it matter if his homework isn't finished?
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The only certainty about homework is that no one knows for sure how much it matters. The National Foundation for Educational Research says that regular homework does seem to contribute to achievement in secondary school, although this is the case most markedly among older pupils, and then not all that much - A-level students who spend more than seven hours a week on homework get a third of a grade higher in their subjects, on average, than students who do less than two hours.

So why should kids give up their precious evenings to it? Well, in addition to boosting their exam grades, homework is also thought to encourage them to become independent learners, and to learn self-discipline and time-management skills that they are definitely going to need in bucketloads in their fast-moving adult lives.

Which means it is important that your son acquires the homework habit. But he also needs to get out in the fresh air and enjoy running around with his friends. It will make him healthier, happier and more skilled at getting on with people. So your task is to help him do both by taking a long, hard look at the hours between coming home from school and going to bed, and working out how he can fit everything in.

Can you get him to sit down to his homework immediately he gets back from school? Or how about doing a deal whereby he can have an hour's football in exchange for an hour's homework when he gets back, with the proviso that if he doesn't keep to his side of the bargain then there'll be no football tomorrow? Even something as simple as turning off the TV can work wonders in getting homework done more efficiently. Some families have found that pressing the "off" button magically seems to create more time.

Help him to get organised. Teach him how to break down his work into manageable chunks by making a list of what he has to do, and prompt him to make sure he has everything he needs - pen, paper, books and worksheets - before he settles down to work.

Many children have a big problem getting started. Try giving him a 10-minute warning - you can use a kitchen timer - after which he has to have started on his work, or his football time will be docked.

Be around, if you possibly can, to keep him on track. If he is used to working in his bedroom, get him to migrate to the kitchen table. Point out to him that the more he concentrates, the more quickly he'll be finished and the more time he'll have to himself, and nudge him back to the task whenever his attention wanders.

Above all, make it consistently clear that you expect him to do his homework, and do it to the best of his ability, and that anything less than that is simply not on.

And console yourself that you are not alone. Boys are notoriously worse at settling to their work than girls, and when the charity Parentline Plus surveyed parents, they found that homework was the second biggest worry in their lives after bullying.


My son has survived five years at secondary school without doing much homework, and he has never received a detention. I have come to the conclusion that boys cope with education in their own style. Playing outside with a ball should be encouraged as very healthy.
Karen Tate, East Sussex

During his school days my son was described as "totally disorganised" by his teachers, and getting homework out of him was like getting blood from a stone. He, too, wanted to play after school, and like you, I felt he had a right to do just that. So in the end his father and I "organised" him, setting aside a reasonable amount of time each day for homework, not isolating him but interacting with him while he did it. We then allowed him to play as much as he liked. We discovered that reward was the best method for getting the most out of him, and we negotiated with him through the worst of times. He's now in his second year of university.
Name withheld on request

Sit your son down and have a frank, mature discussion about homework. Do not make it into an issue of you insisting and him refusing. Discuss it as a fact of life, such as food shopping (or you don't eat), washing (or you smell) or practising football (or you don't improve).

You can help by confirming with his school the agreed amount of homework each night and the time it is expected to take. Then he can set a stopwatch and when the time is up, make it a rule that he is finished. You should make sure your son has a dedicated area in which to do his work, as well as a supply of coloured paper and pens.

If your son is sporty, he may learn best by kinaesthetic means, and work more effectively by using highlighters, making mind maps or recording his own voice relating the facts about what he is learning. And he may need frequent breaks. I would suggest you buy a good study skills book, such as Christine Ostler's Study Skills: A Pupil's Survival Guide.

Finally, don't let homework cause misery in your house. Try to find out as much as possible from the school about the curriculum that is being covered and show an interest. It could be that your son is working very hard at school all day and just finds it too much to settle down again at home. With your guidance his organisational skills will improve, and thus his confidence, too.
Sue McKenna, Hampshire Dyslexia Association, Southampton


My son is thinking about doing a mixture of vocational and academic A-levels when he goes into Year 12 next year, but we are worried that this will harm his chance of a university place. Should we steer him away from this course of action?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 31 May, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser