Have you done your homework?
It's a more and more important part of a child's education. But what is the best way for a parent to help at home - and to avoid being a hindrance, asks Hilary Wilce
Thursday 13 March 1997
Recent research commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment draws a clear link between high levels of school attainment and high levels of homework and after-school activities, while both main political parties have jumped on homework as a pre-election vote winner.
Politicians know that parents are deeply reassured by the way homework keeps children's noses pressed to the grindstone. Ofsted inspectors, who meet parents before embarking on a school inspection, say it is often the issue that takes up most time at these meetings, while secondary schools report that one of the commonest complaints from parents is that their children aren't set enough work.
But once that work comes home, problems can start.
"The primary school sends a reading book home every night, but getting my nine-year-old to do it is a nightmare," says Suzanne Pepworth, a Sussex mother who left school at 16 but who is determined that her children will do better. "He's the sort of boy who wants to be on the go all the time, and he can see his friends outside the window kicking a ball around. They don't have to stay in, but I make him, and then he calls me every name under the sun."
Highly motivated children raise different problems. "Our weekends are completely dominated by homework," says Harriet Henderson, whose 12-year- old daughter goes to a London independent school. "She has masses. The other weekend she had to write an essay on Cranmer and her father spent hours trying to explain why having the prayer book translated from Latin to English was so important. The thing is, she wants to do really well at school, and to do that she needs a lot of help from us."
Homework problems come in all kinds of guises. There's disorganisation, prevarication, anxiety and carelessness. There's the "staring into space" syndrome, and the "I don't get it" syndrome, and the "I'll just download it all from Encarta and then it's done" syndrome.
But behind them all lie the same basic questions: how can parents help children to do their homework, do it as well as they can, and do it for themselves - while preventing problems degenerating into a domestic battlefield?
"Families that have serious battles over homework almost always have other problems," says Gillian Edwards of the New Learning Centre, an educational consultancy working with parents and pupils in north London. "But there are all kinds of ways parents can learn how to avoid confrontations and help their children."
The commonest mistake, she says, is to be too critical. "A lot of children won't show their parents their homework because they always criticise. It's much better to point out what's right. If they've spelt a six-letter word wrong, point out that five of the letters are right before saying anything about the one that's wrong." The centre offers parents detailed advice on managing homework, including where and when it should be done. "We say, have a healthy snack and then get on with it. If there's a favourite TV programme, video it for later. Nobody wants to jump up from Neighbours and start working."
But many parents, particularly of those with older children, run into problems with more complex issues.
"I used to sit down with them when they were younger," says Madelaine Carroll, from Norfolk, whose four children range from 11 to 19. "But now I'm never sure how much I should help them. The 11-year-old is really crafty, and tries to get me to provide all the answers, so I'm always sending him away to do it by himself; but my 13-year-old is not very confident, and needs a sounding-board, particularly with his essays, so I tend to give him more time. I feel we often have to be like teachers, without any of the professional training teachers have, and it can be difficult." Many parents feel the best help they can offer is to buy the right books and equipment, only to discover that the glossy children's encyclopaedia they fell for is more beautiful than useful, and the child-sized desk is abandoned in favour of the floor.
"I always tell people to talk to parents with older children before buying anything," says Caroline Horne, a Birmingham primary teacher. "They're the ones who know which books and CD-Roms get used. But all you really need is an atlas, a dictionary and a library ticket."
Other parents run into problems of expectation - knowing how much time should be spent on homework, or what standard of work is expected.
"Don't listen if they say, `but Mr So-and-So won't mind,'" says Gillian Edwards. "Tell them you do. A teacher has a number of children in class and can't be on top of all of them, but parents have only their own children to worry about."
"Parents are actually the hidden force behind education," says Mike Rose, an education consultant and tutor working in Wales. "But they don't always have a good picture of what goes on in schools, or know about modern ways of teaching, and some teachers have a fear of parents because there are some who can be very difficult.
"Communication is the key. If teachers can get parents on their side, doing the right sort of things, the results are brilliant."
Richard Hale School in Hertford does exactly that, meeting parents of exam-level students to tell them what to expect from the school in terms of revision plans and schedules from each subject department, and how they can best support their children. "We talk about how people learn, the best environment they need to study in," says Mike James, the deputy headteacher, "and about how students - especially boys - need to plan and organise their work."
The school gives guidance on the amount of time that should be spent on homework - three hours a night and four or five hours a day at the weekend for A-level, for example - and fields questions about how homework should be done. "If someone claims they can work in front of the TV, we say fine - but if you know what's being said on the TV, then you're not working properly. The same with music. It's fine to work with music, but if you know when the CD comes to an end, you're not focusing on your work."
The school encourages students to revise with their friends, and suggests that parents test their children, verbally, on notes and vocabulary, even if they do not understand the subject in question.
If you do help your children with their homework, don't expect any thanks. At Richard Hale School they always ask students after their examinations how they felt about their parents' involvement. "And by and large," says Mike James, matter-of-factly, "although most of them admit it helped, they're teenagers, so they also resent it"
Encourage children to do homework regularly, early in the evening, in a supervised room, without distractions. Don't let them leave the hardest tasks until last.
Don't answer questions; help them do it themselves. If they can't find the answers, look into the reasons.
Teach study skills - how to take notes, make an outline and proof- read. Set an example by letting children see you reading and working.
Spend time with your children; speak with authority, have clear rules and don't resort to threats or bribes.
Make time to review marks and reports. Make sure you know your children's teachers' names and the school timetable.
Cut out junk food before homework, and make sure that children get enough physical exercise.
Check they have the right books and equipment.
Praise and encourage children as they do their work.
Don't let them waste time staring into space. Check that work is properly completed
How the educational experts help at home
Michael Barber, professor of education and dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education, who is the mastermind of recent research linking school attainment and homework, has two children in higher education and a daughter at an independent secondary school.
"She gets set a lot of homework, which was a bit of a shock to her last term, after primary school, where she only had spelling on Fridays and some occasional reading; but now it is absolutely routine.
"She's set two or three things an evening and she usually sprawls out in the living room to do it and will maybe ask us a question or two. She may wait until I come in at about 7pm to ask me about maths or history or German. Otherwise, my wife works part-time and she's around.
"We always ask her what her homework is, or else something about it may come up in conversation and we'll talk around things. It's crucial for parents to be interested.
"The school sets manageable tasks, and is very systematic about setting homework and collecting it and marking it, which makes the parents' job a lot easier.
"I think parents' involvement makes all the difference. What I'm absolutely against is the view that some teachers hold, about not setting homework because some children come from families where they can't get this support. That's just lowering the standard for everyone.
"What you have to do is work on setting up facilities such as after-school clubs and extracurricular activities, to provide this support"
David Taylor, Ofsted's head of teacher training, has a sixth-former boy and a girl in year nine, both at independent schools.
"Because they have a long, intensive school day there tends to be a relaxing time between about 5.30pm and 8pm, when there are meals and soap operas and things; then we start to crack the whip.
"The younger one has always tended to go off to her room, and not show us her work or ask too many questions. She wants to be independent. The older one is more visible and around, and so we tend to have to tell him to go away. Then he goes off to the study where there's the computer and headphones and keyboard and whatever, which probably isn't the most effective way of learning, but we'd rather the work gets done than be heavy-handed.
"We tend to be facilitators in terms of sources of information. The library at home is very important, and looking through the shelves for things can become a sort of joint experience, but they're very much on their own when it comes to writing up a project.At primary level we were more interventionist. We did things with tables, and French grammar, because we knew it was essential for them to get the proper learning foundations for later.
"I wrote one of the original documents about homework about 10 years ago and both my wife and I are in the [education] trade, so we've always been strongly committed to the idea that homework, provided it's properly thought out and extends school-based learning, really does make a difference"
David Blunkett, the shadow Education Secretary, has three children - one at university, one at tertiary college and one at school.
"I think the most important thing has to be to make a personal commitment, to be willing to give some time and make a little bit of an effort. You've also got to be confident enough to admit when you can't help. I was always good at helping with history, but not at science. They knew they had to go to their grandparents for that.
"I did sometimes find it difficult to share their worries. They didn't always find it easy to raise issues and share things that worried them with me, and it's also very difficult to get the happy medium between not helping them at all, and doing it all for them. They've got to do the work themselves and be willing to go and research things and look things up.
"When they were little,they could only do so much, then they indicated they'd had enough.When you're an adult you can go on working for a lot longer, so you have to be sensitive to when they've had enough.
"Finding time to help is a very real problem. We're all genuinely busier than we were, and a lot more pressurised, but you just have to try to carve some time out for your children, whether it's in the evening or at the weekend. For me, now, it has to be mainly at weekends
Michael Mavor, head of Rugby School and chairman of the independent schools' forum, the Headmasters' Conference, has a daughter who finished school last year, and a son taking GCSE next year. Both are, or were, at boarding school.
"Like all parents, I try to get the balance right, but having children at boarding school does mean that you are trusting the school to see that prep is done.
"I think the thing that's changed over the last 10 years is that communication between teachers, parents and tutors is much greater.
Parents may not monitor work on a daily basis, but they are certainly kept in touch with what their children are doing. They can telephone the tutor at any time to see how their child is doing, and they have reports on a monthly basis.
"Of course, there are projects that have to be done in the holidays, and then the dilemma is the same as for all parents. To what extent do I help my child?
"My daughter was probably quicker to ask me for advice than my son, who just gets on with it and doesn't want to talk about academic work. When she was doing her A-levels I would get frantic telephone calls saying: `Daddy, why does King Lear do such and such in Act II?' and I'd say, `Look, I've got someone with me, can we talk about it later?' and she'd say, `No, I've got to hand my essay in by break.' Some parents were very understanding, and let me go off for 10 minutes to talk about Lear and then come back"
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