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Less is best in cheeky little Barry's report

STEP forward and take a bow, West Lothian. Your education department has an enthusiastic fan club in our staffroom, the first council department to be awarded such an accolade. They say that timing is everything, so it is no accident that, in this season of reluctant report writing, teachers grasp at any straw which is an improvement on their present lot.

Three weeks ago we enrolled a family who had moved from a West Lothian school. The children are a delight but we have many home-made models for them to join. It was the format of the reports they brought with them which attracted attention. Each report contains a minimum of writing yet conveys a lot of information, succinctly. Page one has boxes for levels, test dates and progress codes and a four-stage description - just like How Good Is Our School? - for behaviour and attitudes. The only continuous writing appears on page two where there are areas for teacher comments and next steps. The next steps section need not cover every area of the curriculum, allowing the teacher to focus on one or two points for development.

Writing pupil reports is one of the most unwelcome tasks in a teacher's year. They consume an inordinate amount of time and effort. The teacher lists levels, achievements and development needs in all areas of the curriculum, from the four aspects of English language to personal and social development, before giving an assessment of the child's behaviour, attitudes to others and homework efforts.

It wasn't always like this. For a quarter of a century, before the 5-14 programme, primary school reports were produced to a format of bland three-stage ticky boxes. It was a model of how not to communicate with parents, even then. Usually, teachers took the safe route of the middle box which required little justification, while the reporting style came to epitomise primary education of that era - confused, uncritical and self-satisfied.

Unsurprisingly, Reporting 5-14, published in 1992, took us in the opposite direction. In its attempt to provide accurate and helpful information to parents and pupils, and in its admirable regard for learning as a continuous process involving the child, it saddled teachers with a massive burden of writing. For workload purposes our school calculates an hour for each report but the truth is that many reports take longer and are a serious commitment for a teacher with 30 pupils.

Communicating the essentials of the 5-14 curriculum to non-teachers is not as easy as it looks. Many parents find phrases like "expressive arts", "environmental studies" or "development needs" meaningless - and why shouldn't they? The challenge to the writer is to convey the meaning in simple terms.

But not all of the time. Some feelings are best kept hidden, in a public document. Instead of "Barry is a cheeky little sod" try writing "Barry expresses his views in a robust manner". Let Barry's parents work it out.

Nor do teachers wish to provide a hostage to fortune, like the phrase on John Lennon's report, "Certainly on the road to failure". The teacher may have been arrogant or was he exasperated by an arrogant pupil?

And what about describing attainment? Is it to be "attained level C" or "working towards level D"? They mean the same but one is straightforward while the other has just a touch of grade inflation or dishonesty.

A teacher wants to know that the effort of reporting is worth while and provides the information parents require. Most parents say that they want to know that their child is doing well, making expected progress, behaving properly and getting on with others. The West Lothian report is economic and straightforward and fulfills all the requirements without the verbiage.

Too many report formats assume that more is better. We should take a close look at the West Lothian model, where less is clearly best.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary school in Perth.

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