I've always disliked the term homework. Surely home is where we rest, refresh, recreate – in the truest sense, not work! What sort of message have we sent our young people all these years by requiring them to work, not only at school but at home? Is it any wonder they don't prefer homework. However, the 21st century for most adults is fast becoming a place where work is what you do, not where you go. It is portable and we have to be doubly careful to protect our recreation time whilst also recognising the advantages of that portability for those for whom working at home is a positive way of combining career with family.
At my school, we have retained the older name for homework: Prep (or to use the full name and highlight its true purpose: preparation). Prep is designed to help children prepare for the next lesson. A myriad short tasks can be part of Prep these days: a YouTube clip, a short film made by a teacher, a sound track, a map or picture to look at etc. Something visual or kinaesthetic to do often suits the child who, by the end of a busy school day, is mentally tired. Resist the temptation to think your child isn't 'working' when undertaking such tasks. As with many things, reference back to our own homework days should be laced with an awareness that, that was then; this is now!
Prep can still consist of consolidation exercises (most adults will recall: 'For homework, do Page 19, ex b, 1-8' – happy days!) but a contemporary rule of thumb should be that these should not be so many as to be onerous and should be adjusted to suit the child's needs. The bright mathematician doesn't need to thrash through 12 basic sums when he/she has clearly mastered the technique.
Some written work may be requested. I would hope that it would be a short piece or even a sample paragraph. 'Write an essay...' comes with strings attached and usually takes rather longer than the Prep time allocated. Strong teachers will recognise this and want to watch written work happening in front of them in class so that they can assess each child's pace of work as well as content or accuracy. As for – 'Do some research...' – which used to mean 'read the textbook (singular) or encyclopaedia entry, is the modern nightmare homework task when Google finds 450,000 sources. Good teachers will limit the searches!
'How long should it take, then?' you ask. Most schools state this clearly and do not expect children to be working for a long time each evening. Practising a musical instrument, spending time outside in the garden messing around with siblings, playing with the dog, just chilling about the house chatting to parents: these should be the stuff of happy home life, too.
At Key Stage 1, having a reading scheme book on the go is sufficient. At Key Stage 2, further reading and basic work on times tables and some spellings might be added, and by Year 5 and 6, some of the kind of preparation tasks outlined above. In schools where pupils are preparing for the entrance examinations to their senior schools (at age 10 or 12), there may be a bit more work required of a more focused kind but it should still be perfectly manageable within a humane timeframe.
Please don't believe your child, therefore, when he or she says they must keep going beyond the recommended time in order to finish or they will be in trouble. Did you choose this school because you thought it would make your child's life a misery? No. Hold the faith. Be firm. Empower your child to stop and contact the class teacher withouthim or her knowing about it. Did he write the task down correctly? Does she understand the topic yet? Collaborative, uncritical dialogue with the school will answer these points and ensure that someone intervenes appropriately. Parents and school must always be a supportive team.
In a boarding school, boarders will have a set prep time and stick to it. They learn to work smart as they want to have fun with friends after the appointed time: a great motivator. All parents can operate a system like this and be clear when homework starts and ends. Having this discipline makes homework part of the daily routine, for a fixed amount of time each day. It is a far better preparation for examinations – the sad stuff of real life in your teens.
Ensure your child's workspace at home is tidy, quiet and uninterrupted by devices that are not being used for study. Even on tablets or PCs in use for homework, turn off the notifications or, frankly, remove any apps you feel are not helping your child focus. Keep an eye on, but not a physical presence in, the workspace until you know your child is truly self-sufficient in terms of focus and pace of work. Prep/homework, after all, is also about learning how to be an independent worker and a self-starter: vital skills for life.
Finally, I advise coaching your child in the Nike approach: 'Just do it'. In truth this is generally much more favoured by boys than girls who love the initial time-wasting prevarication of arranging the many coloured pens and crisp stationery. Help your daughter unleash her inner boy, grab a pen, get the work done, cross out errors with one straight line so that the teacher can see the thought process, finish, pack the bag for tomorrow, and go out to play!