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Feel free to be brutal in reports

Teachers are under attack again, this time for what we say in print to parents. And this time there is hard evidence, probably in duplicate.

The Office for Standards in Education is exercised over our tendency to "exaggerate achievements" and include too much detail about national curriculum attainment levels and other jargon. Moreover, neither in reports nor at parents' meetings, do we give enough information about what children should do to improve their performance.

Let me take that last one first. I have vivid memories of a Year 8 class in which I was convinced a fundamental problem was the children's reluctance to read. I said so on reports, and met the parents with my message. Many shrugged, saying, "He's never been very keen on books, he'd actually rather play football."

When I asked how much time and effort the child's football meant for these parents, I was told of a fortune spent on the right kit, hours washing and ironing it, hours spent ferrying Junior to practices and matches. Then I asked what time and effort they put into their son's reading - did they ever read a newspaper leader column; ask the child if he'd read it; read a non-fiction book and push it in his direction; show an interest in what he read?

Most were sheepish, some appeared to think I might have suggested something useful. But none had the time or inclination for the kind of input which would have made a huge difference to their son's progress. Most considered it my job - as with those who would respond to the accusation that Johnny was idle and inattentive in class by challenging us to fix it - "It's not his job to work harder, it's your job to make him."

Then there's the jargon - well, whose line is that anyway? Pure Government issue. If you force our perceptions of skill and achievement out of the subjective and into the ticky-boxes with numerical labels of national curriculum fame, what do you expect? Wasn't that what assessment and reporting at key stages 1, 2 and 3 was for? To keep parents informed? Teachers will gladly abandon the jargon - just remember it was never our idea in the first place.

Is positive reporting so criminal? Do not most children do their best in school? Is that not worth saying? And, in fact, do we not commonly follow the positive with the dreaded "but. . .", going on to detail the negative and suggest remedies? I've always felt mildly guilty about that part of the report - where you get to the bad news. I now feel released to be more brutally honest, if brutal is what OFSTED wants.

There probably is room for improvement. There are, for instance, huge differences in how secondary schools report, and maybe things should be regularised - though in a country which cannot get all the schools to open and close on the same days, what hope of conformity in more complex areas like reporting?

Maybe all subject reports should give the number in class, the top and bottom marks, class average mark, place achieved by the pupil, as well as his raw mark. That's more specific than to be told his performance was "average". Maybe such information would be a spur - after all, no pupil or parent would be happy with a report on 10 subjects, in all of which the pupil came last, even though his marks varied between 75 per cent and 40 per cent, would they? Not to declare that 75 per cent was the lowest mark in a class examination does, perhaps, deceive the parent.

Another development is to include statements common to all the reports on what the class has been doing for the reporting period - be it Macbeth or magnetism. Such information is easier to supply with an efficient IT system which can pre-print all reports, and, since the pupil may do well in English when it's Shakespeare, badly when it's modern poetry, well in magnetism, less well in electricity, it's useful information.

So what must we do? Offer more information, be more specific, more critical, less positive and less prone to praise. No problem. You could say OFSTED has shown us the way.

Hilary Moriarty is deputy head of The Red Maids' School in Bristol, but writes here in a personal capacity.

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