Homework can be fun

31st January 1997 at 00:00
Homework and study support: a guide for parents and teachers By Julian Stern, David Fulton, #163;11.99

Longman's Parent's Guides:Pre-School Choices and Nursery Education By Liz Wood and Ted Wragg Key Stage1 Key Stage 2 Key Stage 3 GCSE and Key Stage 4 All by Ted Wragg,Longman, #163;2.99 each.

When princes, premiers and aspirant premiers contend, the world must stop and listen. When they wrangle about homework, parents may reflect that their own domestic civil wars are bloody enough without the gratuitous attentions of the great.

Julian Stern boldly seeks to calm the unnecessary conflict, to turn factious heat into amicable light. Without a statistical table or academic footnote in sight, he brings a wealth of experience and common sense to bear on this most bizarre of current political controversies.

He begins with an enlightening paradox: that schoolwork, historically, is the aberration, because most learning has been done in families or communities and only recently have specialised institutions monopolised instruction. This thought leads to his main contention, that homework (or independent learning or distance learning or flexible learning) should often be interesting or exciting in ways not always possible in school. Rather than "finish off what you haven't done yet" the watchword should be "find out things with pride, confidence and with the support of your family or friends."

Stern addresses general issues before moving to many examples of appropriate work for all national curriculum subjects. The FoFo model ("Fuck off and Find out") is replaced or complemented with advice that is commonsensical though not always easy to heed. This includes not setting work just as the bell goes, prescribing upper time limits, and responding to and monitoring work as it's done or not done. A book of written excuses in which pupils can actually record their justificatory pleas about omnivorous pets, errant buses and failing synapses might make a good read for parents on open evenings.

More specifically, he suggests a rich variety of "hammock" activities that can be slung between two attractive lessons, and gives many examples of imaginative manipulation of the temptations of home-life. These include using the television rather than fighting it: calculating camera angles on Top of the Pops, estimating mean and median ages of groups of soap characters, transcribing the confessions of talk show victims to see how spoken language is structured. Other suggestions veer from the plainly helpful to the intriguingly eccentric; the idea of making surreal objects for technology (like Yeats's "I made my song a coat") or recording dreams for PSE could produce results both fascinating and absurd. And spending RE homework in pure contemplation might be a wonderful idea, though Prince Charles is perhaps more likely to approve than Tony Blair.

Stern's advice to parents is equally wide-ranging and generous in both intent and scope. Sometimes his ideas seem over-optimistic (discuss probability when working out insurance policies) and sometimes thin (talk about pitch when listening to favourite songs) but the broad sweep of his advice is profitably directed towards those parents who wish to become supportive and tolerant rather than remaining feckless tyrants.

Many of the book's passing observations could be the start of useful Inset sessions: "Offering help is more important than giving it"; "The most valuable resource [in a library] may be the tables and chairs." Though he needs to revise the current provisions of the music national curriculum, Stern has done his own homework (there's a good annotated bibliography) and has provided a lively, humane and sensible set of recommendations.

Ted Wragg in a T-shirt smiles benignly from the back covers of the five Longman Guides for parents (there are four others for students) but his writing here is not as unbuttoned as TES readers might expect. In the scope of 30 pages per slim volume, Wragg has set out to offer as much reassurance and information as he can on the way we learn now.

Each book begins with a brief vignette of a child embarking on life in a new institution, both rite of passage and great adventure. These sketches are neatly done and point up the elements of continuity and transition in "going up to the juniors" or "starting at secondary." Wragg emphasises the positive aspects of these experiences though he's not deaf to the occasional sobs and screams.

The parent's role is naturally emphasised, and there is guidance on choosing schools and how to support children at home. But the main emphasis is on what children will be doing and how they will be learning. Brief but serviceable guides are given to the national curriculum Programmes of Study and the methods likely to be used in putting them across.

The jokes are staidly avuncular rather than subversive, and nothing is hinted about ministerial buffoonery, administrative pomposity or inspectorial cant. There is also some unavoidable overlap between the books. Readers will need to be able to handle phrases such as integrated programme or complex interaction.

One cartoon shows toddlers studying Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Perhaps politicians could reflect on its final sentence, and for their homework copy out 100 times the admonition that whereof they cannot speak, they should be silent.

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