Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.
 
       
 

Who's doing the homework?
Parents can create more problems than they solve by helping children too much.

Confidence in the value of GCSE coursework as a reliable indicator of a student's ability has increasingly been called into question.

Plagiarism and the "over-involvement" of teachers in their students' coursework have been the principal concerns. But there is a potentially greater problem - the amount of help that children get from their parents.

According to 'A review of GCE and GCSE coursework' - a recent report by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) - two-thirds of parents help their children with GCSE coursework. And many of them do far more than "help". Too often it is not the students but the parents who are busy looking for information on the internet or at the library.

Many parents who want to help their children to do well and achieve the highest possible grades find it difficult to draw the line that separates helpful "encouragement" from getting stuck into the project themselves. Some cannot confine their input to a few helpful remarks.

Some parents I know begin by working out a project structure with their child, but before too long they are busy filling in the details. Soon, without giving it very much thought, they adopt the role of the family search engine and direct their children to the relevant sources. Sometimes they end up all but writing the project.

Round two begins once the project has reached draft stage. Now parents really come into their own. Having rediscovered their literary skills, they give instructions on re-drafting and correcting the grammar and spelling. Often, very little of the final submission is the child's own work.

Parents should not be blamed for this. The QCA report encourages them to discuss the project with their child, to read and comment on drafts, offer possible sources of data and information, discuss whether the arguments are sustained by evidence and to urge him or her to submit the draft to a spelling and grammar check. A liberal interpretation of this suggests that parents can do just about anything but write the project.

Formally, the QCA warns parents that coursework has to be the student's work. But if parents are encouraged to comment on drafts and provide sources, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the QCA too must bear some of the responsibility for the mess we have got ourselves into.

Inadvertently, the QCA's concerns about parental involvement in GCSE coursework raise a much more pervasive problem, which is the growing trend towards what one might call the outsourcing of education by schools. To put it bluntly, in their efforts to demonstrate improved standards, schools manipulate parents' concern for their children by drawing them in as unpaid teachers.

From day one in primary school, parents are told that the performance of their child is intimately linked to how much support he or she gets at home. The official meaning of "support" is not confined to a few encouraging words. Parents are expected to play an active pedagogic role in the educational life of their children. Schemes have even been introduced to train them to participate directly in their children's homework.

One further education college I visited recently offered at least five evening classes concerned with "Helping your child to read" or "Helping your child with GCSE maths" or "Helping your child through GCSE English". Many parents who are anxious about their children's future now regard homework as a joint enterprise. Surveys indicate that, on average, parents spend between six and seven hours a week on homework duties.

Government-sponsored guidelines go through the motions of advising them to hold back from actually doing the homework and not to "take over too much". But once parents have internalised the message that their children's performance is regarded as a direct reflection of the quality of support they receive at home, it is difficult not to get involved "too much".

Once homework becomes an informal instrument for assessing parental behaviour, anxious fathers and mothers find it difficult to draw the line between helping and cheating. That is why the problem that the QCA exposed in relation to GCSE coursework has its origins in the outsourcing of education that begins in Year 1.

Expanding the role of parents in education has become a key policy of recent governments and underscores ministers' lack of faith in their ability to confront the problems in schools. But mobilising parents' instinctive love for their children to shore up education does not solve deep-seated problems. What it does do is encourage parents to become their children's advocates in their dealings with teachers, leading to the widespread adoption of the "my child, right or wrong" attitude.

Parents can, of course, play a valuable role by providing a stimulating environment for their children. The best form of parental involvement in a child's education is positive encouragement. Sometimes this involves discussion of issues and problems raised in school.

But homework needs to be the independent effort of the child. Homework and coursework must be done by children on their own.

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 8 February 2006