“Have you done your homework?” It’s amazing how many hearts – parents and children – sink at this seemingly innocuous question.
In this house, we’ve been through phases where those innocent words have signalled an evening from hell. Reluctant children bent over dog-eared jotters full of stuff they don’t understand and tears, mine usually, as we try to get the thing done.
There have been times I would quite happily have seen homework banned and my kids would have been even more pleased.
Now though, we’re going through a period of homework happiness. Both my school age children – second year at secondary and primary six – get their work done with only the smallest amount of prompting, I don’t interfere and I hear no complaints from school so everyone is happy. But I know we’re quite lucky and that it could all change any time.
Only last month French president Francois Hollande pledged to outlaw homework as part of sweeping changes to the French education system.
He said: “Work should be done at school, rather than at home.”
His move is also to recognise that children who lack positive support at home would be at a disadvantage. It also takes into account the fact that children spend long enough at school and their ability to learn deteriorates as the day progresses.
His promise has reignited the discussion here about whether or not homework is a good thing.
In the let’s keep homework camp are those who believe it helps cement the work the child has done in school during the day. Clearly this is most in evidence in the run up to test – but this is less homework and more exam study.
Others – and I’m among them – believe that homework for secondary pupils is important for learning self-study and teaching youngsters how to organise themselves. It seems there is little to be gained from walking a child step-by-step through their work.
Meanwhile, other homework fans like their children to be working at the kitchen table because they say it allows the parents to stay involved in the children’s work and to see what they’ve been doing at school.
In the opposing camp, parents, pupils and some teachers say school work at home is “evil” and should be stopped as soon as possible. They suggest there is no evidence whatsoever to prove any academic benefit to it.
One teacher blasted it as “stupid, meaningless, disconnected stuff”.
Certainly there are many instances where homework causes domestic strife with the parents taking on the role of the learning police. Critics also say that too much homework interferes with other activities such as sports and that after a busy day at school youngsters are simply too tired to study.
And not done right homework can cause much misery. If a child has not fully grasped the topic taught in class, they may feel very anxious if they then can’t do the homework.
I am reminded of trying to help a frustrated child to understand long division. All the explanation I could think of wasn’t making much progress and, eventually, in desperation I spread out socks on a bed in sets of ten to illustrate ‘carrying one’ or whatever it is called these days. He got it in the end I found a use – at least temporarily – for all those odd socks.
Other homework-haters say that parents can do their off springs’ homework for them to improve their results. A pointless exercise surely.
Increasing volumes of homework is seen as evidence that teachers need to organise themselves and teach more efficiently. A charge that those at the chalk face counter by saying that pressure of league tables and expanding curricula make their lives difficult.
From where I sit enjoying a brief spell where my sons get homework they can cope with and sort it out themselves, I’d say a little is doing them good. My 13 year old, in particular, has worked out how to organise himself and the benefits of not leaving things to the last minute. Skills that will serve him very well in future.
However, I can see that it doesn’t take very much – a subject that they find testing, teachers not coordinating the amount they give or a clash with an after-school activity – and I’ll be back to wishing we could take a leaf out of M Hollande’s book.