Homework - who needs it?;School management

26th March 1999 at 00:00
Well, our children do actually, says Helen McKenzie, as she gives schools no marks for their own feeble efforts

So homework is not a principal concern of Scottish parents (TES Scotland, February 26). Indeed, in the Scottish Parent Teacher Council's recent survey of parental concerns, homework came bottom of the 10 listed concerns about secondary schools. But that doesn't mean no one cares.

For some time I have been worried about the quality and quantity of homework my two children receive. My son, who is in S1, and my daughter, in S4, are given homework which varies enormously in suitability and usefulness.

For one recent assignment my son received a badly photocopied sheet about the solar system. The sheet, which contained no graphics, consisted of five short paragraphs of information, followed by eight questions. The answers could be lifted straight from the text. The educational value of the sheet, which contained several spelling mistakes, was limited and my son wasn't challenged in any way.

This piece of homework, and some other assignments my son has had to do, was also considerably easier than some of the homework exercises he received from his primary school.

The best piece of homework my son has received since he started secondary school was from the religious education department. It included an eye-catching A4 photograph of a Buddhist monk along with two pages of exercises, separated into core and extended activities, and a help sheet. His teacher asked him to attempt the core questions and, if he wanted, the extension activities.

The questions made him study the photograph and think about it. The activities involved observing, interpreting, evaluating and thinking critically. My son enjoyed the exercise so much that he went on and did the extension activities without prompting. He spent 90 minutes on the homework and later in the evening, did some further research on the Internet.

As well as enjoying the work, my son learned about people, culture and religion, developed important skills and felt pleased that he had completed a challenging piece of work.

Variations in the quantity of work are more of a problem for my older child. Some weeks she receives little or no homework, while at other times she receives too much, with deadlines that are over-demanding.

One evening she had 55 calculations to work out for maths, an 800-word essay for English, a map exercise for geography, a design assignment for art and revision for biology and chemistry tests.

She was flustered, frustrated and discouraged from doing any of it. Such a volume of work poses the real threat of homework fatigue, creates tensions within the family and is counter-productive for effective learning.

With parental help, my daughter was able to organise her assignments using time-management and a few crisis management principles I had picked up from my own work in a busy city-centre office. But how many parents can offer this type of expertise?

So what does this parent think schools should be doing? For a start, there should be greater consistency in the quality of homework issued by different departments, and by different schools.

I would also like to see more detailed statements of homework policy from schools and evidence that they are upheld. As far as I am concerned, poor homework reflects badly on the teacher who issues it, and on those members of the school management team who should be monitoring it.

Schools also need to control the volume of homework being issued, particularly for older pupils, and offer more lessons on time management.

A concerted effort to improve homework programmes is certainly worth making. Many benefits will be accrued from good homework programmes, including higher standards of academic attainment and increased opportunities for parents in their role as active partners in the learning process.

Parents value homework highly. Raising the standard of assignments will take time, effort and money, but it is an investment worth making.

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