1 KNOW YOUR CHILDREN
Seems obvious. But if you teach RE, for example, or music, you'll see hundreds of children in a week, and this can lead to silly errors of identity both in reports and on parents' evenings. Keep good records of course, but there's no substitute for having a mental picture of the child you're writing about. So from day one work to put names and faces together. (Find out if your school's central database has photographs of the children. Many do.)
2 KEEP IT SIMPLE
Parents need three essential bits of information from a school report:Where their child is doing well; where there's not enough progress; how things compare with the child's last report. Bear these in mind as you approach the task. Mentally tick them off for each report you write before you add any comments or judgments.
3 PLAN YOUR WORK
Right at the start of your time in the school, study the report system in use. Play with the software, read previous reports. Then plan your work, your marking and your record keeping with one eye on what you're going to have to do at report time. Get this right, and in the perfect world all you'll have to do will be transfer grades and comments straight from one laptop file onto another. The basic admin ICT principle of "enter once, use many times" applies here. (In reality it might be a bit more complicated than that, but that's the vision to aim for.)
4 FOCUS ON INDIVIDUALS
You teach to a class, but pupils are individuals.
Over and above any formal classroom performance data that the school asks you to record, make and keep updating summary notes on the more personal strengths and weaknesses of each pupil: "Jack Jones - attentive, quiet, easily overlooked, dry wit when you get to know him well." Parents will be pleased when you show some of this understanding in your written reports.
5 PROVIDE DETAIL
Parents want to know that their children are moving forward in your subject. It's not enough, though, to say, "Doing well".
You'll need to give chapter and verse. Study previous reports and write comments which make comparisons in specific areas, "Can now count up to 10", or "Has now mastered sentences, and is beginning to understand how to use paragraphs."
6 NO EDU-SPEAK
Pasting in chunks of the national curriculum, such as "John can use dates and vocabulary relating to the passing of time, including ancient, modern, BC, AD, century and decade", may be technically precise and may provide the necessary detail, but it's a turn off for parents. Pick something out and say it in a more personal way: "John was confused about the difference between BC and AD when we started the term, but he's proud of having it sorted out now, and is quick to explain it to others who haven't caught up yet."
7 GIVE EXAMPLES
So, after "Her water colour work has improved technically this term", add "As we can all see in her painting of Don Quixote, now in the entrance hall".
8 WRITE LEGIBLY
If you have to write in hand any part of a report, do it legibly and in an adult script. If you're in any doubt, do a first draft of every comment for someone else to look at. Here, too, the critics lie in wait.
9 DON'T PATRONISE
Be clear, concise and jargon free, but remember you're addressing adults who know their own children and have at least as much experience of life as you have.
10 BE ACCURATE
A single factual error - getting a name wrong, for example, "Tracy" instead of "Tracey" devalues for the family everything else you write. If the school system is good, you'll have downloaded the class list from the database anyway, but it's always a good idea to check.
11 USE GOOD GRAMMAR
Again, small errors have a disproportionate effect. Your audience is waiting to pounce. Use the spellcheck, use a dictionary, use your friends and partners - and remember that the best way, usually, is to find a simpler alternative to the complicated sentence you first thought of.
12 POSITIVE NOT NEGATIVE
You are paid to make sure that Jack does his homework, so "Jack never does his homework" is actually a comment on your performance. (And in many schools senior management will be quick to point this out to you.) Judgmental words such as "lazy" invite a similar response.
13 DON'T SPRING SURPRISES
"I can't comment on Sandra's work in the gym because she hasn't brought her kit all term" is just one example of this.
Discuss issues with management or parents before commenting on such issues.
14 WRITE WHAT YOU MEAN
We've all read the sarcastic quasi-erudite comments: "The quality of his work never fails to astonish." "Aspires to mediocrity". The problem is simply one of forgetting the audience. Such comments are written for colleagues, for posterity, for the forthcoming book of amusing school anecdotes when they should actually be written specifically and exclusively for the (always anxious) person who's responsible for the child.
15 HIGHLIGHT THE SCHOOL'S VALUES
The comment "Daljit has shown great kindness to a new pupil this term" makes her feel good and signals to her parents that there's much more to Daljit's school life than her progress through the curriculum.
16 EMPHASISE KINDNESS
"She made a memorable contribution to our class assembly on Florence Nightingale, and it was good to see so many of you here supporting her on a working day. She's gained noticeably in confidence as a result. Many thanks."
17 CREDIT THE EXTRAS
Is the child in a choir or on a sports team? Does he or she work hard back stage in school plays? Make sure that this kind of contribution isn't missed, especially when it's quiet, unspectacular and vital to some part of the school's life.
18 HELP COLLEAGUES
Draw the attention of other teachers to comments they might make: "Could you mention that Carlton worked really well on that geography trip I helped you to supervise?"
19 ASK SUPPORT STAFF
The observations of teaching assistants, playground supervisors and office staff can add a different and often positive dimension to a child's report.
20 BE IN THE MOOD
If your proposed comment or contribution will significantly differ from the general trend (much poorer effort in your subject than in others, for example), put the report aside until you can discuss it with your manager. This is something that should have been spotted earlier - now it needs dealing with, possibly with a parent consultation, before the report goes home.