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If you really want to help your kids with their homework, you need to do yours first

Every parent, irrespective of their age, will have lent a hand with their children’s homework.  None of us saw this as meddling did we?  We wanted to be involved, help their understanding and, possibly, make sure they were at least as good as the best or better.  When my daughter was 11 she had to build a scale model of the Globe theatre; yes, it was an interesting project but a little daunting, given that she had zero modelling skills.  In the end that didn’t matter because, even though my modelling skills were zero too, I had focus, I was in the zone and I was going to prevail, no matter how many hours I had to devote to thatching a circular construction with a hole in the middle.  She didn’t win top prize, she didn’t win any accolade at all, and I was as disappointed as she was; this was a plague on both our houses after all.  When I was next at her school the winning Globe was in pride of place in the reception area.  I took one look and knew instantly that that kid had architects for parents.

Wanting our children to succeed in life starts early.  Throughout nursery and primary school we set good examples; we read to them, we keep them safe, we sort out issues and we simplify the complex.  We always looked amazing in their eyes because there was virtually nothing that we couldn’t explain coherently, apart from how babies were made.  There may have been a couple of wobbles in years five and six when age and experience were no match for “it’s not done that way at school” or “don’t you understand the question mum?”  but, in the main, we were heroes, giants among men, primus inter pares, winners.  For me this all changed rather quickly when my three got to secondary school.  I found myself spending inordinate amounts of time on BBC Bitesize relearning what I once knew to help them with their homework.  I also wanted to remain their hero, but I didn’t feel bright enough and my contributions weren’t hitting the mark consistently.  It wasn’t too long before my children stopped asking for my help altogether.

Over the years I’d be asked my advice now and then, but when I didn’t have the foggiest about the October Revolution or Milgram’s study or the difference between diastolic and systolic blood pressure, it was back to the chorus.  Then I found my role, I could edit the homework.  I write for a living so I knew that I could make a worthwhile contribution.  And I did.  My son especially appreciated my input and I was delighted to be actively involved in his academic education once more.  This joy ended rather abruptly when my son realised that every time I’d helped him he got lower than expected marks.  His essay on the miners’ strike was a tour de force, but his history teacher wasn’t of the same opinion.  This mini masterpiece, coloured and enhanced by the addition of Eddie Shah and flying pickets, should have attracted an ‘A’ I thought, but it ended up a ‘C’.  Why?  Because my input, chock full of my own knowledge, or ‘OK’ as I later learned it’s called, turned a sharp, relevant, fact-filled essay into a flaccid story, short on substance, but brilliantly descriptive.  My only defence is that I didn’t know the rules, aka ‘AOs’ or Assessment Objectives.

As you’d expect there are marking criteria for all subjects, and sometimes the students know about them and sometimes they don’t, but for me it was a revelation.   After ploughing through all the different AOs for my son’s subjects – and they change according to the subject and the unit – I realised that exam boards don’t want works of art, they’re after incisive thought, depth of knowledge and proof that you can apply that knowledge to specific situations.  You need to be able to cross reference, use source material and embellish with quotes where relevant.  This is brilliant of course, but it does mean that if you know how to trigger the higher marks, a less able student can fare better than a more able one who isn’t as savvy.  Is there any harm in that?  Probably, but being savvy might get you further these days.

The net result of my intrusion into the world of education was increased admiration for secondary school teachers.  I know they have a tough job just doing the day-to-day, but after trying to get to grips with one tiny, but vitally important part of their work, I realised for the first time how enormous their remit is.  Every year they have to be completely at home with new information to guide their students successfully through the course to reach the exams ‘fit for purpose’.   After reading, OK (that means okay) scanning, documents from OCR and Edexcel, all I wanted to do was take another shot at the Globe.

To my kids’ teachers, and to every teacher helping their students be the best they can, all I want to say (without being overly descriptive and using insightful and penetrating vernacular only) is “respect”.

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