A Post-Truth Perspective On Homework, Pushy Parents And Polyester Trousers

19/01/2017 17:02
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An email from the school head this week declared 'parents are overwhelmingly in favour of homework' and I was once again overwhelmed by a sense of outrage, disappointment, and a tiny bit of self-loathing for failing to see which way the wind was blowing. A survey had been sent home two weeks before, its presence in my kitchen precipitated imagined responses from other parents that were as irritating as the imaginary nits I may have contracted from one of my children. The other parents in my head were eagerly filling out the form 'yes please, more homework, lots of it'. I saw them righteously fulfilling their parental obligations, endeavouring to raise good citizens of the future, the little me in my head with them screaming 'stop, think, read, dammit do your own homework'.

The evidence of the benefits of homework on primary aged children is thin. There seems to be no academic achievement benefits, and even later on when a link between homework and performance is noted there is some doubt as to whether homework causes the improvement or just correlates with it. Despite this startling lack of evidence, parents continue to expect it. In fact they don't just support it, they demand it, and in two schools I have encountered there was outrage when it was reduced. Teachers dole it out like the placebo it is, too exhausted and overworked to give it much consideration and nobody has the time to engage in a meaningful discussion of its merits. Parent questionnaires are populated with questions about preferences, thoughts, and opinions and nobody's actually being asked to do their homework on homework.

What I find most interesting is this. How can a school have a blanket policy on homework that meets the needs of every child in the school? The variables are too considerable for there to be universal benefit. The child's mind, mood, home environment, the parent's patience, work commitment, prior experience of learning, the weather, what's on TV, how well the handout was photocopied, whether it was yoghurt or fruit for pudding, or how high sibling tensions are running - any one of these factors wields the potential to turn a simple gap-fill task into a weapon of home wrecking proportions.

My argument is simple, it's not to anyone's benefit for the school to be involved in what happens in the few precious hours between three and seven pm. Children don't need one more thing to be measured/scolded/rewarded for, teachers don't need one more medium through which parents can evaluate them, and parents don't need any more reasons to feel like they are failing their children. Homework slithers around like an invisible agitator and people invite it in.

At one school I knew a few years ago, a homework grid was introduced. Children ticked off core boxes for maths and spelling. Other boxes contained a variety of optional tasks designed to appease a range of learning preferences. There was also space to report cultural experiences, and my favourite section: 'Home Helper'. Here I found an opportunity to tell my daughter's teacher how she had helped change her newborn sister's nappy or planted runner beans in the garden. Education became bigger than the confines of the classroom and all new experiences celebrated for their learning potential. More than that, a dialogue opened up between teacher and parent, time wasn't spent marking exercises but was better used celebrating the achievements of the whole child. A few weeks into the trial, my little pessimistic heart was unsurprised to hear that many parents did not like the new system.

So, back to my current cohort. Why do the parents at my local school care enough about homework to want to force my children to do it? I shouldn't be surprised, they felt similarly strongly about uniform three years ago. Despite a glaring lack of evidence, the oft-cited tropes about behaviour, cohesion, and bullying were wheeled out. Then, as now, the 'overwhelming majority' felt no need to be informed and instead voted to oblige my kid to slip into a pair of polyester unsustainable sweatshop slacks five days a week. I learned to live with that, I learned to resist in small ways and I'm sure I'll learn to live with and occasionally subvert the new homework policy. I just wish I didn't feel like the only one.

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