Some home truths about homework

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Timothy does not do his homework. Aged 13, he has never done his homework. He is intelligent, articulate and engaging, but the homework debate has cast a shadow over his whole middle school career. Some staff are so incensed by his failure to do homework that they barely give him credit for his other achievements and contribution to school life.

As his form tutor, I have reached an impasse; I am bound to support school policy and insist that his parents make him do his homework or they will be issued a disclaimer whereby they, and Timothy (and the staff) are spared the continuing battle.

Unfortunately, his parents are against homework in principle and would welcome a disclaimer. Which leaves Timothy at a distinct disadvantage in lessons where everyone else has worked ahead at home. Is this really in Timothy's best interests?

My only alternative is to go against school policy and make Timothy spend lunchbreaks in my room doing his missed work. This would placate irate staff and benefit Timothy. His parents are unlikely to object.

But is that homework? If Timothy is doing the work under duress and during the school day, how can it be homework? And if we can disclaim responsibility and refuse to set Timothy homework, how sure are we of its value to the rest of the class?

Reasons often cited for the setting of homework mainly centre on the value of independent learning.

In practice, much homework is job creation for schoolchildren: worksheets which arrive home crumpled under football boots (textbooks can rarely be taken home); spurious surveys; written tasks undertaken in conditions not conducive to quiet thought and careful work.

There are plenty of oportunities for fostering independent learning within school where resources and expertise are available to assist all pupils equally. How many children lack basic resources at home? I know of many who do not have dictionaries, English or French, maths instruments, word processors, even coloured pencils.

Timothy's parents are educated and know-ledgeable. They lead interesting lives. He takes part in after-school activites, sponsored charity events, trips and visits. He is well cared for and goes to bed early. I feel sympathy with their decision not to support homework - coupled with frustration at the burden that puts back on me as his tutor.

My own children, now post-GCSE, have, like most young people, spent many late nights on coursework, perfecting presentation, carrying out studies and ploughing through numerous subjects, all competing for time.

They, like Timothy, are lucky enough to be able to cope. Other children spend endless hours of their young lives wading through piles of work, much of it bewildering to them.

In the new Education Bill, the clauses on home-school contracts could lead schools to refuse to admit pupils whose parents will not abide by rules on such things as homework.

Meanwhile, we in schools need to be sure that work set is accessible to all children, that it is a positive experience for them, and that it is of sufficent value to take up a chunk of each day which might otherwise be spent on games, hobbies, clubs, pl ay and time with the family. And that is a tall order. It also doesn't help me with my immediate problem with Timothy.

The writer is a teacher on the Isle of Wight.

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