Jonny McCambridge: Making hard work of the P5 homework

I am studying a sheet of paper.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 10th November 2021, 5:00 am
The infernal mathematics grids
The infernal mathematics grids

On this sheet there are several square and rectangular grids containing a few numbers amid a larger number of blank spaces.

They look not unlike Sudoku puzzles. Similar to Sudoku puzzles, I have not the faintest idea what I am supposed to do.

I stare at the grids. My son, who is sitting at my side, stares at me. I turn to him. He meets my eyes with an expression of hope and expectation. I am wounded by the look.

‘I’m sorry buddy, but I haven’t got a clue.’

This is homework. P5 homework.

I can say with complete certainty that I find homework massively more stressful, difficult and tiring as a parent than I ever did as a pupil.

When I was a child, I always did my own homework. I am not sure that the thought ever occurred to me that I could share the burden with a parent. I struggled on alone. If I was unable to complete the tasks, I accepted the consequences at school.

But things have changed since then. Education is a much broader concept now. Not only are parents expected to help, but it often seems that homework tasks are set specifically with mums and dads in mind. It has to be checked and signed by the parent before being sent back to the teacher.

What started as a mere trickle of work in P1 has become a full-blown raging torrent of learning by P5. There is the daily reading, times tables and spellings. There are always worksheets. There is the abundance of virtual homework on apps and devices which I have no idea how to access. Worst of all are the dreaded occasions when we are given the task of making an art project.

To be entirely fair, my wife accepts much more of the burden than I do. It would be accurate to say that she is more suited to the rigours of the ordeal. I struggle with the patience and the empathy required to guide my son through the mountains of work.

And there is a fear. A fear that if I am finding it so difficult now, how will I cope when he goes to big school? I always knew a day would arrive when I wouldn’t be able to understand the homework. I just didn’t expect it to arrive in P5.

I continue to study the sheet with the grids and numbers. I have got as far as establishing that it is a maths assignment. This is neither mine, nor my son’s strongest discipline.

My boy likes reading books and creative tasks and struggles with the numbers. I have always been better with words (hence, why I make my living as a lowly newspaper columnist as opposed to a worthwhile occupation which pays more handsomely.)

There is another problem. I am tired. My boy is tired. I’ve had another testing day at work before rushing to pick him up from his afterschool club and making his dinner. Now, just at the moment when my body is telling me I should be immersed in a hot bubble bath, I am having to stretch my exhausted brain in an unexpected direction.

I notice that my mobile phone is lighting up. The WhatsApp group for the parents of children in my son’s class has suddenly become active (there are 29 people in this WhatsApp group. I am one of only two men. The other works as a mathematician).

The mummies are close to revolt at the difficulty of the homework and are comparing notes on how to complete the task. I set the phone down and chastise myself for my defeatist attitude. I have a GCSE in mathematics, and I am not going to be beaten by P5 work.

The instructions at the top of the sheet are bald. It merely says ‘Fill in the missing numbers on these multiplication grids’. It does not say how.

I chew on the end of a pencil. Finally, I arrive at the method. The digits down the left-hand side of the grid should be multiplied with the digits along the bottom. The answer goes into the square where the axis of these two numbers meets (are you following me so far?)

Which would be absolutely fine if all of the numbers on the left and bottom lines were provided. They are not and have to be worked out from a few clue numbers provided in the middle (still with me?). Each grid is larger than the previous one and has fewer of the answers provided to assist.

My solving of the riddle is but the first step. I now have to try and make my son understand it. I explain it once. He looks confused. I fill in a couple of answers and explain it again. He looks bemused. This goes on for some time. In the end, I have to conclude that the only option is to go on with the grids and hope that he picks it up as we go.

We work our way through the squares, but it is tortuous. It takes me an age to find a starting point for some of the more advanced grids.

Further delay is caused by my insistence that my son works out the sums himself. As I said, maths is not his best skillset. If I ask him what is 7 x 9, he might answer ‘3’. If I ask him what is 3 x 4, he might answer ‘42,976’. If I ask him what is 8 x 7, he might answer ‘A cow’.

To counteract this, we have to go through the full times table to find almost every answer. To work out 9 x 9, we first have to go through 9 x 1 = 9, 9 x 2 = 18, and so on until we come to the answer of 81 (author quickly checks that on the calculator on his phone. It is 81).

Eventually, after what seems like hours, we are finished, and I am as confident as I can be that that we have provided the correct answers. I feel drained and deflated. I have been taken to a dark place that I prefer not to visit. I suspect I’ll be going back there again soon.

I have a rule that I do not swear in front of my son. I tell him that daddy needs to go out into the back garden by himself for a bit.