When I decided to do my daughter's homework for two weeks, I didn't know what I was letting myself in for.

15th May 2015 at 01:00
By Stephen Petty

It's Monday evening. The kitchen floor, walls and surfaces are spattered with red paint that has streamed from the canvas or missed the target completely. My 13-year-old daughter has been set an Ian Cook-inspired homework task by her art teacher: to paint a picture of a car using the wheel of a toy motor instead of a paintbrush.

But the scene of carnage in our kitchen is nothing to do with her. For I, too, am trying to produce an image of that wretched little car, my own implement being a puny wheel snapped off my son's toy BMW Roadster. And I am rubbish at it.

It's a chaotic and inauspicious start to my two-week mission to undertake precisely the same homework as my daughter. I know it isn't going to be easy - as a head of department at a big comprehensive school, my first challenge is going to be finding the time - but my aim is to assess how purposeful and effective homework is, especially for students of my daughter's age and younger.

I can see the value of homework for exam classes; my older pupils are doubtless sick of my hoary old metaphor about the classroom being a "training ground" and homework the all-important "match practice". But I have often wondered if it is really helpful for pupils aged 14 and younger. Doing some homework myself seems an excellent way to find out.

Week 1: I'm reminded of my deficiencies

My daughter's suggestion that we begin with her art homework borders on malicious: she knows I was hopeless at the subject at school. My classmates would make special detours to my easel to lampoon the latest "Petty". Once, for a piece of history homework, I laboriously sketched, coloured and labelled a Viking soldier, only for the teacher to write "Brer Rabbit?" next to it.

So I am jubilant when we move on to maths. The task involves a visit to a fun-sounding online maths school called Mangahigh, where the teacher has set 20 multiple-choice questions on fractions, decimals, ratios and percentages. My daughter works quickly through the assignment without much fuss, but my calculations take much longer.

As so often happens when I read maths questions, I am distracted by the ethical issues involved. One question announces rather glibly that "Roy Swift and Anne Davis share an inheritance of pound;72,000 in the ratio of 5:3". I wonder what poor Anne has done to be slighted by the deceased in such a way.

Maths teachers never seem especially troubled by such matters. Indeed, the Mangahigh website is similarly brutal, ranking the class from top to bottom after every piece of homework. I am relieved that my own efforts are safely offline.

The first night is tough, but I am hopeful that the burden will ease before the fortnight is out. Even at England's best schools (and my daughter's comprehensive is one of those), key stage 3 classes often have a relatively easy ride from Easter until June while their teachers desperately mark GCSE and sixth-form work.

I am wrong: homework comes at us from all angles in the first week.

Our task for English is to write a book review. My daughter chooses Swallows and Amazons, a novel she knows I steered away from as a child. I write a review of the film instead, and even that feels like a marathon.

For German we have to write a paragraph that includes the past, present and future tenses. This is difficult for me, because I know how to say only two things in German. I am able to announce that I'm in a good mood in spite of the inclement weather, which I traditionally follow by asking my listener to accompany me to the cinema. This led to an uncomfortable moment with a German teaching assistant a while back.

Next we tackle a design assignment. The task is to produce a mood board. As I've explained, I'm not the most artistic of people and this activity simply reminds me how hopeless I was at certain subjects at school. My mood board unfortunately reflects this.

I stagger towards the weekend. For drama we examine a scene from the inevitable Blood Brothers; for French we revise the rules for negatives and imperatives. Meanwhile, history and geography enter the fray: for the former we evaluate the reasons for the rise of Hitler; for the latter we create an illustrated A3 globalisation poster showing the impact on different stakeholders when a UK firm moves its factory to India.

By Saturday, I am exhausted. Despite my preparations for some leisure, we must sit down and tackle an RE question: "Does suffering make it harder to believe in God?" This is a task we have been avoiding.

The question stimulates much argument in our household. I find it too ambiguous as the answer surely depends on your starting point. From an atheist's perspective, the homework could be completed with a simple "Not if you don't believe in him in the first place". The answer also surely depends on the kind of being you imagine God to be.

I muse and procrastinate; my daughter gets on with writing a full and balanced answer. When I finally manage to get something on paper, Week 1 is done.

Week 2: I'm impressed and inspired

I start Week 2 already behind. We teachers tell our students not to leave homework to the last minute, but now I'm not so sure. I suspect that some things are best deferred for as long as possible - and an assignment to grid-draw my favourite cartoon character certainly falls into that category. It was always going to be a thoroughly miserable experience, despite Donkey from Shrek beaming up at me.

With that out of the way, I am ready to tackle the next batch of tasks. It starts well: the science teacher asks us to write a crime story involving forensics. My daughter embarks on a multi-page country-house murder mystery, working three or more different forms of forensic evidence into her narrative, as requested. My own tale is much briefer and involves a burglar attempting to escape detection by using somebody else's severed fingers. This is perhaps the most imaginative and inspiring homework task of the lot.

Next up is some classic utility homework: watch an episode of The Simpsons. Is there a subject that hasn't drawn upon The Simpsons? This time, the RE teacher wants us to look for evidence of good and evil in an episode of our choice. It's enjoyable, but I'm not sure I learn anything.

For our English homework, we analyse Christina Rossetti's poem Sister Maude. We simply have to underline similes and alliteration, as well as define the word "comeliest".

Then comes more history homework: we are asked to begin researching the Holocaust by reading some bleak accounts online.

Finally, Friday brings us back to maths - and to the end of the experiment. We are directed to another website, MathsWatch, where we are taken through each topic via video lessons and sample questions. It's great and a lot friendlier than Mangahigh; the internet provision for maths students today is excellent and other subjects are surely heading this way.

What have I learned?

Although I am still clinically alive at the end of the fortnight, I am drained. I wouldn't recommend trying this at home. As a busy teacher, finding opportunities to do homework is tough. Should I cancel all my social engagements? For me, that wouldn't create an awful lot of time. Cut back on the usual displacement activities of phone, computer and television? That seems sensible, as does marking books at lunchtime rather than after school. But the biggest casualty was always going to be sleep.

Was the experiment worth the upheaval? Definitely. I have learned a lot and these lessons can be distilled into seven key points.

1 Homework is not a waste of time

Well, not usually. Gone, for the most part, are the days when teachers cobbled something together at the end of a lesson just for the sake of it. A friend of mine likes to tell a story from his schooldays of a boy who called his teacher the C-word as yet another spontaneously generated homework task was being chalked up on the board. The slightly deaf teacher swung around and responded, "Oh yes I can."

In contrast, the homework I sampled was nearly always on a pre-printed sheet and was a logical development of the topic being studied in class. My daughter and I did question the value of watching The Simpsons and replicating images of cartoon characters, but otherwise there was generally a clear sense of purpose.

2 We need to differentiate

If the homework was in a subject I liked and had an aptitude for, I found that it often bordered on being enjoyable. But if I disliked or had a weakness in the subject, the tasks tended to reinforce my antipathy. This was, I think, largely because the assignments were frequently open-ended, with the same thing being asked of the whole class. I often take this approach when setting homework, but I appreciate now how counterproductive it can be for the less enthralled or the less able.

As adults we become adept at avoiding commitments that expose our weaknesses, but children of 13 can feel menaced and confounded by some of the tasks sent their way. In the subjects I struggled with, the homework assignments left me floundering and feeling even more negative than before. In future I will think much more carefully about how to differentiate the tasks I set.

3 It's crucial to consider the home situation

Much of the homework that was set assumed there was a supportive educational infrastructure at home, with a suitable space for study and a readily available computer connected to the internet. With two slightly brainwashed teachers at the helm, our house appears almost purpose-built for homework, but this is not typical. Many households would struggle to support some of the tasks.

4 We need to be more consistent

The quantity of homework set each week is unpredictable, especially for younger students. If the purpose is to get students into a routine of nightly study, in preparation for the more serious years ahead, we are failing. I chanced upon a busier spell of homework traffic, but some of the preceding weeks were much quieter. (The teachers were completely unaware of my gatecrashing the homework party.)

5 Leaving it to the last minute can be best.

.despite all our advice to the contrary. This is especially true for the subjects we don't like - I put off the pain in a big way and I think my other work benefited as a result. At other times, my daughter and I had no choice but to leave it late. My homework had to be squeezed in around commitments to parenting, teaching, the Champions League and running. My daughter had a similarly full diary of club meetings and sporting and social commitments. Sometimes the last minute is the only minute.

6 Marking is crucial

It will prove impossible, I know, but I now realise that I must mark every single piece of homework my students complete. I was quite relieved that my work was not going to be assessed, but a couple of my daughter's efforts were never looked at and she was understandably frustrated.

Given the many demands on our time, teachers have sound reasons for not being able to mark every single task. But students are never going to understand this. To them, it simply means that their efforts are being ignored. I'm hoping that greater use of peer-assessment will help. And I need to be prepared sometimes to opt for the old-fashioned "tick plus brief motivational comment" approach. That's got to be better than nothing at all.

7 The old excuses are the only excuses

Did I think of any new excuses for not producing my homework? The internet was down; the printer was broken; my mum didn't think I should be writing about evil; my dad thought the French homework was too negative. In short: no, I didn't.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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