Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

When I Decided to Do My Daughter's Homework for Two Weeks, I Didn't Know What I Was Letting Myself in For

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

When I Decided to Do My Daughter's Homework for Two Weeks, I Didn't Know What I Was Letting Myself in For

Article excerpt

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 students; my Year 10s and 11s 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 in Year 9 or the earlier years. 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 £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. …

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