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Home truths

It's homework day and I survey the red plastic box with a familiar sinking feeling. I know exactly what will be in there: 23 exercise books (out of a possible 30) in various states of disrepair, containing two sheets, many filled in with red biro or purple glittery gel pen. At the bottom of the box will be a pristine book, bursting with exquisite handwriting, illustrations and sheets of "extra research".

Then there are the missing books. Six of these will appear only after an energetic teacher-led campaign. One, like everything else its owner takes out of the classroom, will have disappeared forever.

For many primary teachers, homework is a headache that is completely out of proportion to any benefits it brings. I'm not talking about asking children to read or to practise their times tables - those are no-brainers. But to devise homework that is meaningful, interesting and will extend a child's learning is no mean feat. Put simply, if the task is easy enough for a child to do without any help, it's probably not teaching them anything. And if it's too difficult, it ends up being done by the parents, often after tears have been shed and tempers frayed.

"Homework for primary-aged children is a waste of time", a headteacher once told me. "If they've worked hard in school all day, they deserve the evening off. And if they haven't worked at school, they won't work at home."

One of my new pupils comes in every day with her reading diary unsigned. "Can no one at home hear you read?" I asked her once.

"No," she told me. "My dad works nights and my mum's too busy with the baby twins."

"She's right," the teaching assistant told me. "Her mum speaks no English, so she couldn't help her even if she had the time."

This is precisely the reason why I don't believe in wasting time and energy castigating children whose homework isn't up to scratch - once they leave the classroom, the playing field tilts. You can't compare a piece of work completed at a quiet kitchen table with a home tutor to one from a child who had to ask you to borrow a pen.

And yet, some parents judge the quality of a primary education entirely on the homework doled out and refuse to believe in the true brilliance of a school until their child is coming home with a Sats paper a night and a spelling list that includes the word pterodactyl.

If you're the sort of parent who has the time or inclination to spend your evenings practising subordinate clauses and making dodecahedrons out of matchsticks with your child, then all power to you.

If, on the other hand, you're the sort of parent who reads with your child and helps them to learn their times tables but wishes us dead when we ask them to make a multi-pitched musical instrument out of household objects by Monday then you can rest assured you're still doing a great job.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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