It fell into a mine shaft I then my dog ate it

14th January 2000 at 00:00
It can be an unwelcome task, but imaginative approaches may help, as Carolyn O'Grady reports. However, whatever you do, pupils will still weave tales of why they haven't done it. Robin Stewart (opposite page) listens in.

In they came, sat down, retrieved their books from their bags and began to chat. "Good morning," I said. There was a response of sorts. "Please put your homework on your desk." Five hands went into the air. I looked around. The same problem, different students. I was about to listen to excuses - some old, some new.

"James," I said. "Tell me all about it." "I'm sorry Sir, but I didn't have enough time to complete my homework, because my little sister was very ill, and my Mum was too busy to help, and when my Dad came home he was a bit drunk and Mum and him had this awful row and I was sent to bed when I asked if someone could help me." Hayley intervened: "I forgot to take my book home. I promise to do it for tomorrow." Patrick was shuffling from one foot to the other. "Sorry Sir, but I didn't understand the work you set, so I thought it would be better if I left it until today."

I was at a loss. Should I ask the other two or should I simply get on with the rest of the lesson? My curiosity got the better of me. "Jenna, what's your excuse?" Jenna looked aggrieved at the tone of my voice. "Sir," she sighed, "I had French, geography and technology to do, and I had to meet a deadline for my child development coursework. By then it was midnight and I felt it was time to go to bed." I looked at Malcolm. "Dad said that the answer was 18 and Mum said it was 10. They started shouting at each other. Dad said Mum was stupid, and she said he couldn't count because he gave her different money for housekeeping every week. It was wicked, Sir. Lasted over an hour-and-a-half. Anyway Sir, I still don't know the answer, can you tell me?" I hoped I wasn't smiling, but really the whole thing had become a little farcical. Why did I set this homework? It had already taken me 10 minutes to hear some quite plausible excuses. Should I take any action? What would those students who completed the homework say if I did nothing? What action should I take? There was a tension around the room. Rachael raised her hand. "Sir," she smiled, "I'm sorry. I didn't do my homework because the whole family is distraught. My stick insect has developed woodworm and is unlikely to survive."

A flush crept up my neck. It reached my chin when I realised Rachael was diffusing the situation with humour. I ws grateful and decided the lesson should continue. I would deal with non-producers of homework at the end of the lesson. Nevertheless, their scene took 15 minutes.

How could I expect 32 students to complete the task? It was almost an impossibility. The Government, and I suspect many parents agree, have decreed that homework should be set regularly. Fine. But, do they realise the consequences of this? Are they aware of the disasters that the setting of homework triggers?

My feeling is that however much time we allow for differentiated homework, there are many students for whom homework is an unnecessary evil, which will only lead to poor learning and pressure that teenagers can do without. As soon as we set homework, we are giving the privileged few an advantage. Take a student who has computer and Internet access, against a student of comparable ability who lives in a two-up, two-down with parents who struggle. What messages are we sending out? Is this grammar versus comprehensive disguised?

Homework and breakfast clubs may well be springing up but there will still be disadvantaged students. It might be an inability to work alone at home, without parental assistance, a lack of parental interest, the aggravation caused when parents take an interest, or a lack of facilities. Whatever, the Government's attitude to homework does not fall into line with equal opportunities policies in our schools - as soon as homework is set, there is discrimination.

A review of homework completion inevitably delays teaching. Those who have completed the task will focus on the teacher's reaction to those who have not. Whatever we do, we lose. The remainder of the lesson I described was devoted to the question: what is half of three-quarters? Bearing in mind the time lost and taking into account that a certain gentleman (by the name of Woodhead) wouldn't answer the question, it seemed a good idea.

After much discussion, it was decided that since half of a quarter is one-eighth and one-quarter is therefore two-eighths, the answer is three-eighths. Everyone was happy and that was the end of the lesson - but not quite. There was homework to be set: "I want you to reflect upon what we have discussed and talk to the class, reviewing what we have done today." I felt sure there would be fewer problems when I next taught them. After all, you can reflect upon things anywhere, and without help from anyone.

Robin Stewart teaches maths at Pennice Community College, St Austell, Cornwall

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