Teachers, Please Stop Setting Pointless Homework Tasks that Eat into Precious Family Time
"Mum, can you help me make a longhouse?"
- by Debra Kidd
Like many working mums, time is short and precious. I work away a lot too, so our weekends really matter. We’re not alone. Few families are time-rich these days. So why do schools insist on setting homework tasks that eat into that precious family time, causing stress along the way?
Every time there’s a new topic at school, I can guarantee that my child will bring home a task that make my heart sink. The first is the dressing up task: “We’re having Viking day next week and I need a costume.”
There are four parental responses to this. One: buy it. Two: mum or dad are a whizz on the sewing machine and will make an amazing one. Three: we have neither the money nor the skill so we’ll panic and make something rubbish. Four: you’re on your own, kid.
The second task that makes me groan is model building: “I have to make a Viking longhouse.”
Again, there are four responses here. One: buy a kit. Two: mum or dad is a whizz with a jigsaw and hammer and will make an amazing model. Three: we have neither the money nor the materials so will spend a tearful weekend trying to make something acceptable out of a cornflakes packet. Four: you’re still on your own, kid.
And so, on dressing up or model making day, we see, spread before us, the rich, the children blessed with creative parents, the slightly embarrassed and the utterly shamed.
What learning outcome do we gain from these tasks? Is it so that children learn there are haves and have-nots? They already know this, surely? Is it to test the strength of their parents’ relationship?
My 10-year-old saw his dad and I argue furiously over how much assistance we should be giving over his Viking longhouse. I was so cross I would have happily sent him in with a My Little Pony tattooed with the words ‘Viking longhouse’ all over its backside.
But Dad wanted him to fit in, to not be embarrassed in front of his friends. So instead of our bike ride, he fashioned cardboard and cocktail sticks while his wife fumed and his son sulkily tried to explain how it should look.
“Ah, father/son time,” say the romantics, not seeing the frustration and bickering going on. We could have been outside in the fresh air on our bikes. Some kids don’t have dads. Some kids just have mums who, like me, are tempted to take the advice of a friend and send in bonfire ashes with a label reading ‘Viking longhouse after a raid.’
Seriously, teachers, as someone who spent her one weekend off last month dousing sheets in coffee to make a Viking peasant’s smock, what is the point? What are the children actually learning? Is this simply a way of devolving the DT curriculum to parents so that schools don’t need to find the time or money for it? When Ofsted comes in, do you point proudly to the shelters, longhouses or amphitheatres and say, “Yes, our children do DT!” Is it for photographs? Why?
Children don’t seem to learn anything from these experiences. My son already knew what a longhouse was, how it was made, where the fire was and why there was a hole in the roof. Why did he need to make one? What really matters about history?
It’s the stories, the understanding of how other people in other places and times were both similar and different to us. It’s about understanding how their time impacted on ours – how they affected our culture, language, geography, myths and legends.
It’s really not about whose dad is a better carpenter or whose parents can order a ‘one click’ costume from Amazon without worrying about whether or not they can still pay the electricity bill.
When I see homework tasks such as these, I understand why the EEF/Sutton Trust toolkit shows that primary homework has no impact on pupil achievement whatsoever. So what could we do differently?
Firstly, make things in school and teach children the skills they need to do this effectively. Secondly, offer a real choice – you can write about, draw, make a model of or make a film about Viking longhouses, or perform the process of making and living in one. All children can access this task without parental help. Thirdly, don’t do it.
There, rant over. Just in time to pop down to the DIY store for sample paint pots.