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Parents have a lot to learn, too

The Telegraph
Want your child to shine in the classroom? Do your homework before helping them with theirs

Some tasks numb the soul, says Sarah Raffray, head of St Augustine’s Priory in Ealing. “I’m talking about death by worksheet. There’s nothing more killing than dragging your child to the table when you can’t find anything intrinsically interesting about spotting adjectives.” Ideally, she says, homework should inspire, divert and nurture a lifelong love of learning. Sound unrealistic? According to independent schools, it comes down to the quality of homework set by teachers. “Homework should be about engaging higher thinking skills and rarely about the right answer,” says Raffray.

At this stage of term, parents and most pupils begin with good intentions. But heads at competitive schools often bemoan calls for more homework from parents who don’t really know why they want it. This can lead to toxic battles between parent and child, and knowing when to back off or when to monitor demands delicate judgement. If you’re too “hands-off”, your child can get away with doing very little; too involved and it becomes counter- productive. “Homework doesn’t consist of memorising the facts and regurgitating them, it’s about learning to work on your own,” says Matthew Christmas, assistant head (academic) at Royal Hospital School in Ipswich. Young people need boundaries and routine, he believes, but within that they need to make their own mistakes.

Tempting as it is, don’t feed your child the answers. “It hinders their ability to think independently,” believes John Walmsley, principal of UWC Atlantic College, an international school in South Wales. This is especially hard for parents who become ferociously involved and children who want to save face and succeed.

Part of what makes a successful teacher is the ability to lead a student to find out something themselves; parents might not have this judgement so should step back. “Not knowing things can make you feel anxious,” acknowledges David Goodhew, headmaster of Latymer Upper School in London. “We need to resist putting teenagers, especially, under too much pressure.”

Instead, keep an eye on how long your child spends on separate tasks. Not completing something within the recommended time or whizzing through too quickly is a useful diagnostic tool for teachers as to whether a child is struggling or coasting. As a rule of thumb, many secondary schools expect students in Years 7 to 8 to spend up to an hour and a half on about three subjects a night – rising to about two hours for higher years towards GCSEs. Sixth-formers develop a less rigid structure, with extended deadlines to prepare them for independent study.

While heads are loath to generalise, girls sometimes tend to be greater perfectionists than boys, which may come down to confidence. So if your daughter is spending hours on a map or researching a subject, suggest a time limit. Too much effort can backfire; remind your child they may have to complete a task in exam conditions and limited time.

Received wisdom has it that to work children need a quiet place, free from distractions. Raffray, however, points out that today’s internet and mobile phone use means there is less “quiet” space available. He believes that to work at the family table sometimes and feel “part of it” can help children learn to cope with distractions and set them up for future working life.

If you want to keep tabs on Facebook use, find a reason to drop by occasionally. “The best reason is to bring them a snack,” says Christmas. “But try to trust them without looking over their shoulder all the time.”

And what of the quality of the homework set? “Parents rightly get cross if it’s just set for the sake of it,” says Goodhew. Tasks such as “research this topic for half an hour” can be pointless if they don’t feed into a lesson plan.

Homework at Royal Hospital School is categorised in three ways: prep, such as revising and researching for future lessons; consolidation, consisting of repetitive exercises to practise a skill, such as essay writing; and stretch — looking at a subject from a different angle or extended questions. “Everyone needs stretching, whatever their ability,” says Christmas. His school flags up to parents the type of homework set and expectations.

Parents need to lighten up about home learning, especially in lower years, believes Raffray. Making it fun and encouraging lateral thinking can be enjoyable. “University admissions tutors want pupils who don’t just know the A-roads but also go down the byways of learning,” he adds.

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