My son is in Y4. Although I did offer to swap him on Twitter once (he told me they’d been doing circuits at school but it was boring – fair justification), that’s not normally how I feel about him. However, like most children, he doesn’t rush home all excited about homework, or ever ask if we can get rid of the TV so it’s less of a distraction to the important business of becoming highly educated.
I freely admit to knowing almost nothing about teaching and learning below Y7. But I do know what being a parent of a child at this stage is like now. And, as far as the current experience of homework goes: it sucks.
There is a fair bit of research evidence on homework. The EEF Toolkit reference list is a fairly comprehensive collection of the best of this, I think. It certainly points at a positive effect for secondary, but I think a lot of care is needed to separate correlation from causation. As a teacher, I don’t suppose it would surprise you to find that the children spending more time doing homework were the higher achieving ones. For primary, any positive effect from homework is small, at best. I don’t want to dismiss primary homework out-of-hand, but we are certainly not starting from a situation where any old homework is better than none.
Any old homework is what we seem to get, though. We’ve moved on from the building castles and making Easter bonnets that punctuated homework from Infants’ School. I’m sure that was great for the creative families out there but I think the only thing my son learned from watching my wife and I sticking such things together after he’d had a go, made a mistake, and started rolling round the floor howling, was that parents are right suckers.
What we get now is at least vaguely academic. Tonight it was a table of conversions between minutes and hours to complete; at the weekend I think it was read and make notes on a text (but he never brought his English book home so we didn’t have the text); before that he had to find regular shapes around the house; and last week he had to interview us about a book we loved as children and answer five questions. This took him about five minutes – nobody could accuse him of verbosity! In addition there is a regular list of spellings. Now, he’s a good speller, but there are still tonnes of very common Tier 1 words he gets wrong that strike me as more important at this stage than ‘imperfect’, ‘illuminate’, ‘freight’, ‘veil’ or ‘convey’. Plus, these come home without the relevant spelling rules (either in his head or in hard copy), so we’re probably missing out there as well.
None of it makes much sense to me. Maybe the intention is to make the homework varied and engaging. If so, I have unsurprising news – homework is a chore, whatever is set. None of us care if it’s engaging; we just want it to be straightforward. It all seems rather arbitrary and there are no clear standards for completion, so when he scribbles it down in five minutes, or wriggles his way out of spelling practice, it seems to be only my own guilty conscience that takes a hit. I would have no problem insisting on a higher standard and removing screen rights until it was done, but I’m not about to do that when half the time I don’t really know what is considered to be a good effort.
Finally, when I extrapolate from my own experience of making up homework to meet a school “once a week, every Wednesday for Science” policy, only to have to wade through the subsequent marking as part of my own homework the following week, I just end up thinking that my son’s homework must be a pain in the arse for everyone involved: children, parents, and teachers.
So, come on, primary people. If you’re setting homework like this, please stop. Have a really good think about what would be simple but useful. Set it in a way that makes it crystal clear, and totally consistent week in, week out. Routine we can do; inspiration we can’t. Assume that most parents know absolutely nothing about phonics, spelling rules, how you are teaching multiplication of fractions, and make sure parent support doesn’t need that knowledge. Get it up on the school website at the start of the year so you don’t have to try to remember at 1730 on a wet Thursday afternoon. Have a totally bombproof way of holding children accountable for the work, and informing us if it’s not being done properly, and let’s spare everyone some pain. If you can’t find a way to do that, then just stop altogether.
I would just like to finish by offering an abject and unfettered, grovelling apology for all the rubbish homework I’ve set over the years. Hopefully it was mainly a trauma for the secondary children I taught, rather than their parents, but to all those who were confused by my made-up-on-the-spot, “Research and write half-a-page on Voltaire” who never had anything to do with electricity (science teachers will understand) and my many other disgraceful failures, I am truly sorry. I will never do this again!