Homework, well managed, binds child, parent and teacher in a delicately balanced partnership. Parental support is a vital ingredient, but the essential contract is between child and school. The better the channels of communication between home and school, the greater the chances of success for the homework process: if parents are unsure about any aspect of it - its purpose, how it should be done, its aptness - they must feel able to talk to the teacher about it.
If homework is to benefit the child, it must be a meaningful task - such as an extension, or consolidation of work already done in class, or preliminary research for a new project - rather than something dreamt up at the last minute by a teacher who remembers she has to set something. Children quickly lose heart if their homework is not marked; if this happens frequently, parents should take it up with the school. Differentiated homework, set according to the child's ability, is also a good idea, wherever possible.
Let the child take the lead in homework: it is they - not the parent - who knows, or should know, the context for a piece of work. And don't expect work at home to be a replica of work done at school. Homework is an opportunity for children to work in different ways, not just sitting down at a table with pen and paper, but researching different topics, gathering information by talking to family members, even taking notes on a television documentary.
Don't do children's homework for them. Not only is there no point in terms of the child's learning, but clever parents weighing in can be demotivating and disheartening for a child lacking confidence. If a particular project involves you substantially, you should acknowledge this to the school. Equally, don't make children feel their homework is nothing to do with you: take an interest in what they're doing, talk to them about it, look at it when it's finished. If it's something you find impenetrable - like a maths problem - let the child be the one to teach you: all children relish the sensation of knowing something their parent doesn't.
Primary school children
Although as they get older children need to learn to organise their own time to become self-motivated learners, younger children will probably need your help in beginning to acquire this kind of self-discipline. Help them build a good homework habit from the start, even with fairly minimal tasks, by encouraging a routine which suits you both, e.g. homework after tea, or after a favourite TV programme. Let them work close to where you are if they wish, like at the kitchen table, and try to make the homework period an enjoyable family time.
Follow the homework times set by the school, and don't let children struggle for too long with something they find difficult. Find out what projects the class is doing, so you can collect together useful books and materials in advance. Encourage your child to do this with you, and to acquire the public library habit.
Researching topics on the computer can be helpful; if possible, have the computer in one of your main rooms, so that you can join in and keep an eye. Beware a tendency for children simply to print out reams of pages from a CD-Rom. They may have the computer skills to do this, but they will still need your help in digesting the information and sifting out what they need. Discourage children from copying chunks out of books, or computer texts. Help them become efficient note-takers by jotting down key words, facts and phrases, and putting together their own sentences.
Secondary school children
By the age of 11 or 12, most children will prefer to do their homework in a quiet place on their own - but you should continue to take an interest and help them check over what they've done. They may sometimes be glad of your sitting down to do it with them. But your relationship will benefit if you leave it to them to come to you for help, rather than standing over them policing their homework.
Help them to plan their time well ahead. Try to provide sources of information other than just the computer - books, libraries, tapes etc. Surfing the net for answers to homework can be productive, if the child first focuses on exactly what needs to be found out. But it can also waste a lot of time, if children get into the habit of drifting from site to site. (Parents Information Network has useful leaflets on computers and homework: free copies from 0900 1 633644.)
Try to trust your child to do what's asked of them by the school, and trust the school to let you know when they fail to. Sometimes it can be better for the child if you stand back and let him or her take the consequences of not getting a homework in on time, however uncomfortable this feels to you.