Q: Why do schools keep giving out so much homework? My son has work to do every night of the week and then he has to study. It seems to be burning him out. Am I right?
A: Almost as certain as MPs can’t agree on what is to happen with Brexit, headteachers can’t agree on the benefits of homework and how much each pupil should do. Much of the problem is that too often, pupils get given rather dull and repetitive exercises which don’t really stretch or benefit their learning. Some schools are trying what they call the “flipped classroom” approach. They get their pupils to search the internet for subject information which the next day they discuss and debate in class. In this way, pupils can see the benefit of what they are doing and really embed their learning by interactive work with the teacher.
The one benefit of well-set homework is that it helps build academic discipline and rigour. Rule of thumb I would suggest an hour a night for Yrs 7 and 8. In Yr 9, 90 minutes and in Year 10, 110 minutes. GCSE and A-level candidates will only achieve the higher grades if they devote two hours or more nightly during the week and a similar period on at least one day at the weekend. As exams approach, it will need to increase. However, the real secret is to help youngsters develop stronger powers of concentration. When they do that, they will cut through their homework and revision far more quickly and effectively. And they will like it far more too.
Q: I have recently found out that I have cancer and although we are very hopeful the treatment regime will work well, I am petrified about what will happen to my three children aged between 9 and 14. They know something is wrong with me but I don’t know what to say to them. Your advice would be welcome.
A: There’s a lot of comment these days about building resilience in children – a really important inner quality. The fact of the matter is, however, that children are naturally resilient so long as they don’t fill up with self-doubt. It may be hard to accept, but when children suspect something important is being kept from them, the doubt-gremlins creep in and sit on their shoulders. Children always love their parents (even if they sometimes act as if they don’t) and they trust you. Each of them is of an age where they can accept important information so long as it is given to them straightforwardly and without drama and hesitation. I would recommend sitting them down with all members of the family who are important to them and giving them the simple facts. Blessedly, the recovery rate from many forms of cancer is extremely high. The treatment protocols can be well managed, but the children need to know what the likely side-effects are and how it will impact on daily life. Ask them to take some new responsibilities around the home and to help. Let them know that their love and support will make you feel better. It is likely they already know someone whose parent has suffered cancer and has made a good recovery. Above all, keep it simple and clear, avoid speculation and keep them well informed. Use this as an opportunity to offer new lasting and loving channels of communication. From this great difficulty, a lot of good can come.
Q: We are looking for a new private school for our daughter. There is so much data around but most of it doesn’t make much sense to my wife and me. How do we choose?
A: Selecting a school is rather like buying a house; the moment you step in the front door you can tell whether it is for you. Yes, you should look at the data (ask the Head to explain in laymen’s language what it means) and you should look at the values expressed in the glossy brochures. More importantly, look at whether you see those values in action around the school. Always request a tour of the school whilst it is in operation and ask for the tour to be given by some of the existing pupils. When you meet the Head, ensure you have your questions ready. Personally, I don’t pay too much regard to league tables; they are often misleading and don’t really tell you about the ‘quality’ of education on offer. OFSTED also has come to this view. Latest inspection reports are always available from the Independent Schools Inspectorate website and reviews abound in books like ‘The Good Schools Guide’. Finally, ask for a “taster session” for your daughter; two days is better than one and see how much she smiles when she comes home to tell you about it. All of this will either confirm or rebuff the impression you got within the first five minutes of your visit.