Dear Ted

6th December 2002 at 00:00
I teach Year 1 and our head, supported by some parents, wants us to set homework over Christmas. Don't the children deserve a break?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email: dear.ted@tes.co.uk

Ted says

It is always difficult for teachers, who legally are acting in the place of parents during the school day, to detach from this role after hours. A few over-ambitious parents will indeed drive their children hard at home, even putting them off school in extreme cases, but most will have the good sense not to turn into Genghis Khan.

One possibility is to think of a friendly assignment that would be fun to do and would relate to Christmas, like a small scrapbook of photos or drawings and text, saying who got what for Christmas, what family and friends all did, ate, games they played, whether they went anywhere. Young children not able to write very well could have a template ("For Christmas dinner I ateI ").

Another is to prepare something, rather than have to do it, so it can be written up, discussed, explored in class in the new year, such as bringing in a (small) present to talk and write about, or looking out for the funniest, happiest, most moving moments of the festivities.

Ask the head to put the issue on the agenda of a staff meeting or discussion, so that everyone can air their views. This is much more healthy and open than muttering to each other behind closed doors, or pinning a picture of the head to the staffroom dartboard.

If league table thinking is becoming too dominant, then this, too, should be discussed. There is now great concern, in primary and secondary education, over narrowing of a school's programme and the negative effect of this on creative activities in particular. Some GCSE, AS and A-level students, for example, give up out-of-school music activities to concentrate on exams. Remember, the evidence suggests that primary schools with a balanced curriculum do better in literacy and numeracy than those that hammer basics into the grave.

You say

Keep a diary

Activities involving learning or an outcome of any sort can be worthwhile and enjoyable. What about keeping a diary? If necessary it can have a focus - "time", "people", "places", "food" or just "things"-and it can lead into next term's work.

Offer a school notebook but suggest buying a special notepad the children could choose themselves. They could make it as simple or as elaborate as they wish. It could contain photographs, receipts from attractions, presents or meals out. Illustrations and added thoughts and feelings should be encouraged. For younger children, an illustration and one word can be perfect - "happy", "tired", "shopping", "tasty", and so on. The diaries can make an instant display at the beginning of term and awards can be given out for the best five. They can then be returned for the children to keep.

Angie Butler, Penzance, Cornwall

Relate it to Christmas

Make the homework fun and relate it to Christmas. A few ideas:

* Draw your Christmas tree with its decorations. How many decorations are there? Can you sort them into groups by coloursize?

* Write a diary of Christmas day or draw pictures to show what you did on the day.

* What shapes were your presents? How heavy were they?

* Draw and write a menu for Christmas dinner.

* Write a story about Father Christmas.

Catherine Whitington, Worcestershire Encourage family-oriented activities Homework is one of those areas that teachers can never get right; holiday homework even more so. My daughter would say her best holiday homework was, "Have fun, eat well, play lots of computer games, go to bed late and come back ready to work next term". Her worst was the holiday project which didn't fit in with family activities. This led to a conscientious child who had read books and enjoyed other learning opportunities returning to school tearful and worried that her teacher would be cross that she had not done what was expected.

I believe the answer lies in giving optional homework during holidays and making it reflect the holiday season. Our family favourites are tasks which encourage us to find out a little more about some topic which will be covered in the following term. For example, find out 10 interesting facts aboutI This might encourage us to use resources we have at home, visit the local library, talk to friends and relatives or visit a local attraction (not necessarily a paying one). This way parents have a chance to work with teachers to broaden children's experience and encourage a deeper interest in topics.

But make sure you send a note home - parents need to know what you are suggesting and that the homework is optional.

Alison Myerscough, parent governor, London

Relish the break

Your head's stance sounds rather mean-spirited and distinctly unseasonal. Perhaps the staff should club together and buy him or her a copy of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The parallels with Scrooge should be clear.

The change in policy that should follow will be evidenced by refreshed and re-energised kids returning from their break. And as for parents who support the head, they will soon realise that a family Christmas is fraught enough without piling on more agony in the form of homework.

D Yates, West Sussex

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