Imagine a promising young footballer gets a transfer to the best club in the world and immediately starts playing poorly. His reason? He doesn't need to try as hard as before because his new teammates are good enough to cover his shortcomings. As improbable as this logic might sound, new academic research in England has suggested parents are guilty of the same error when it comes to their children's education.
The study links poor exam performance by pupils who attend highly rated schools with parents reducing their level of academic support they give to their children. The researchers have discovered that an unexpectedly good Ofsted inspector's report can lead to mums and dads sitting back and helping less with homework, by a considerable margin.
Unfortunately, the converse does not hold true. The parents of children attending a school that has suffered a bad inspector's report don't spend long hours working with their children to fill in the gaps and help prepare them for exams. In fact, they don't change the level of support at all.
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It is perfectly understandable why parents cut back on helping with homework when they find out they have struck it lucky with the school they have sent their kids to, because there is nothing more fraught than homework time. After working long hours and coming home to make dinner, the next stage of the evening is to nag truculent teenagers into attending to the assignments prescribed by a teacher who is blissfully unaware of the pain they have inflicted on both parent and child (but more on the parent).
Firstly, there is the imbalance of power of knowledge, weighted heavily in favour of the child: “The teacher says we don't have to do that page”, says the pupil, with the parent left not knowing if this is true but happy to take the path of least resistance.
Secondly, there is the imbalance in ability, sometimes demonstrated by a face that smirks as an aged relative struggles to work out an equation or verb conjugation.
Therefore, it can be no surprise that parents down tools when they discover that a team of inspectors has rated their children's school highly. And, while research has shown that successful students have strong support from involved parents, homework is a major cause of stress for teens and can lead to tension in families.
While the information was collated from the behaviour of parents based in England, the question is relevant to their Scottish counterparts – how do we persuade parents to maintain their level of homework support if the school is deemed successful? Maybe inspectors' reports should become private affairs, published on a need-to-know basis to stop the negative effect of fabulous feedback. However, campaigning parents might demand to know the results of a great report so that they can end the nightly battle over homework, safe in the knowledge (or so they think) that the inspection has predicted success.
Or perhaps schools whose results have suffered due to a good inspection could start homework clubs – not for pupils but for parents. A place, then, where mums and dads can form a network to support each other through the terrible teenage homework years.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland