Unwilling partners in learning

27th July 2001 at 01:00
The increasingly sophisticated task of helping children with their primary homework can prove too demanding for many parents, says Laura Peters.

OMEWORK in the primary sector has many sound educational purposes. As well as promoting parental partnership, it consolidates, reinforces classwork and lets pupils catch up with work missed due to absences, shortage of time, or lack of effort. It plays an important role in raising standards with the staple diet of reading, spelling and number, occasionally laced with research and drawing.

Meaningless exercises of yesteryear placed minimal demands on parents, who were merely required to sign the homework or listen to reading or tables by rote. This contrasts with the onerous demands of today's homework which, language programmes emphasise, is a time for parents and children to "interact" with each other.

Reading homework may involve parents helping to analyse text, answer questions on comprehension, read with voice expression and research areas of study. Its success depends on them having a clear understanding of their role and being willing to support their child's learning.

Homework should also provide the child with some opportunity for private, independent study. It is important that it is made clear to parents which exercises require their assistance and which are to be done by the child on their own. Good homework programmes are varied with a balance of interactive and independent activities.

Not all parents embrace the partnership that homework brings. Ini-tally encouraged by imaginative story sacks and the intimacy of the paired reading of the pre-school and reception stages, some find their enthusiasm gradually wane. It is likely that some cringe when their child comes home chirping: "I've a special homework assignment for you. You've got till next Monday to do it." This may involve completion of a questionnaire or finding a picture for discussion in class. Either way many parents find this new meaningful homework a total nightmare.

Homework can also isolate children whose parents are not willing, able or available to contribute. Although study support sessions target these very pupils, not all are attracted to giving up their recreational time. It is likely that parents who are fed up with being so involved in their child's homework, and parents who relish an extra hour of the day not spent with their children find study support particularly attractive.

Planning and explaining homework, as well as chasing it up and marking it, sometimes takes more time than it is worth. Some teachers are accustomed to providing and marking packages of work for pupils whose parents take them on a "package" to Orlando or Magaluf during term time, or the annual much longer haul to India or Pakistan.

One year I received a particularly dog-eared jotter that reeked of smoke, and other pungent delights, from a hard-working six-year-old. The writing was unrecognisable from his usual classwork. It was scrappy and filthy.

When I spoke to him and his mum, she informed me that homework was done at the kitchen table at supper time, with his younger sister of nursery age at the table, and with the telly on. I casually made a few alternative suggestions and emphasised the importance of completing the set homework.

I was smug with success for a week as there was a noticeable improvement. The boy's homework arrived clean and neatly presented although with a few surprisingly careless mistakes. When I met mum in the corridor one morning I thanked her for her help. "Oh that's good," she said. "Actually the last few days I've forgot all about his homework so I've been waking him up at 11 o'clock and getting him out of bed to do it. He's not very happy about it but he'll soon learn how important homework is."

My heart sank and I immediately felt guilty about the situation that I had created. I suggested that, rather than interrupt his sleep, she set the alarm earlier in the morning. As I said it, I had visions of this scrawny kid skipping a much needed breakfast to do his homework.

Laura Peters is a west of Scotland primary teacher.

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