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
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
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.
published in the Daily Telegraph, 8 February 2006