Thursday, November 24, 2005

Homework Heaven

Being as Ruth Kelly was splashed all over yesterday's papers talking about homework, I thought I'd give today's blog a bit of a topical bent. Call me old fashioned, but it seems to me that a) encouraging kids from an early age to plunder the internet for any information they need (relevant or not) and b) creating an exam system which allows you to retake again and again till you get the right mark is asking for trouble. And it therefore should come as no surprise to anyone that people - er - cheat. Well, knock me down with a feather. It's sort of instutionalised cheating if you ask me (which you probably didn't). I think all government departments should forthwith be replaced by a mega department, called the Department for Stating the Bleedin' Obvious.

My offspring as yet haven't reached the dizzy heights of GSCE internet cheating (although as we are two years off secondary school, those days will be upon us before I know it), but I have news for Ruth Kelly. It isn't just GCSEs that throw up dodgy results and dubious practices. The rot starts much earlier. In fact I'd say about year 3 in the Juniors is as good a place as any to start...
Homework in primary school is a bit of a mystery to me, as I can't recall ever having any. For a start I am not sure what the benefit of a five year old bringing home their sums is, given that no parent in their right mind will send said five year old back to school with the work done wrong. At present the work my five year old seems to get bears little or no resemblance to anything she has done at school. Viz: this week's homework was to reach the no 45 via different sums using 5, 10, 15 and 20 - apparently you can do this eleven times. To begin with she didn't understand the question (even when I explained it to her) and then she ran out of steam after the fourth permutation. Can't say I blame her really, I was getting rather bored too. We didn't even get on to the next bit which was to do the same for 50. On top of this she also has spellings (fairly simple), to write four sentences about her favourite toy (she can just about do that, but it takes forever), and practise writing the letter i a thousand times. Educational value? Nul points, I'd say, but then I'm not a teacher.

Now here is another oddity about the homework system operating in primary schools. In years 1/2 they seem to get stacks. Years 3/4 very little and now we have reached Year 5 we have to sweat through homework three times a week. It's very trying.

As it happens, no 2 did have a bit of homework this week (her first all term). To design and create a leaflet about insects. I seem to vaguely remember no 1 doing one on spiders when she was in year 3, and it was an epic performance. A true child of her generation, she begged to go on the internet. Why? I said. To find out about spiders, was the reply. Whatever happened to good old books?

I encouraged her instead to get the information she needed from the library, and she did a fantastically detailed and decorated leaflet about tarantulas and wolf spiders. This effort came at huge cost (mainly to my sanity) as no 1 is not only very thorough, but incredibly slow. So she ended up giving the work in late. Meanwhile the rest of the class had got their mums and dads to print off pictures from the internet, and no 1 quickly discovered that Style over Substance is what counts in this brave new Internetted-up world.

This lesson was borne out for her doublefold last year when she had to produce a leaflet on Mexican Animals. Again I banned the internet and we went to the library to find some books. Sadly all the books were out, so much against my better judgement we went online to discover something - anything - about Mexican creatures. We did actually manage to find a decent website, but I gave her strict instructions about rewriting material and not just regurgitating it. This homework was supposed to be done over a period of five weeks. But no 1 being so slow ended up running out of time. So as she came to do her final version, she rushed it and it was scrappy. I gently suggested that she might like to redo it more neatly and was met with floods of tears. Deciding that it simply Wasn't Worth It, I let her finish it and hand it in. At least, she'll get a good mark for effort and detail I thought. Wrong! She got C+-B- because it was untidy. The kids who copied off the internet all got As. Way to go.

This year so far we have had tears nearly every week because of literacy homework, which no1 takes three times as long over as everyone else as a) she is so slow she hasn't finished the work in the classroom so has to catch up at home b) she writes three times as much as everyone else (I was actually told by her teacher that to get the grades she is capable of, she shouldn't write so much - it's so nice to see creativity being encouraged in the school environment) c) as she is lefthanded she struggles to write fast. The net result is that she has been doing her homework and I have (reluctantly) been typing it up as otherwise she'd be up till 10 o clock. She has also learnt that typing things up gets a better response from her teacher. Style Over Substance wins already. And she's only nine.

No2 meanwhile is a different kettle of fish altogether. She is bright and quick and dashes things off in no time. I watched openmouthed as she created a leaflet in the space of ten minutes based on everything she knew about insects. It was scrappy and not very neat, but it did the job, with a fraction of the time spent/pain expended on no 1's efforts. I can forsee that come year 4 and the Mexican animals project, its going to be As all round. She has grasped even quicker then no 1 that Style over Substance is all that matters.

So, Ruth Kelly if you're out there listening. While you're conducting your review of the role of plagiarism at GSCE level, why not take a look at what's going on in primary schools while you're about it. Because that's where it goes tits up. And now that we're going to be ofsteading three year olds, before you know it, they'll be singing Q, W, E, R, T, Y, U, I, O, P instead of A, B, C, D, E, F, G....

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