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Make the bad news positive;School Management

As anxious parents receive children's school reports, Laura Peters looks at the way teachers are encouraged to write them

Few teachers relish writing pupil reports: it is so onerous and time-consuming. When I was a probationer, my head addressed her entire teaching staff and instructed us in her golden rules of writing reports. They were:

* Be positive and encouraging. Even if you have not a favourable comment to make about a pupil, create one.

* Remember that there are no "dull" children in this school. Although you can describe a pupil as "bright", never describe a pupil as "dull".

* Write neatly

* Check your spelling.

Reporting is a form of home-school communication that requires a great deal more thought than can be afforded by these pearly words of wisdom. Word processing, a new curriculum, new report formats, and an increase in parental interest in their children's education have forced dramatic change in reports. The requirement to be positive, though, has stood the test of time.

Admittedly, I based my reports on the above guidelines for years. To do otherwise would have led to confrontation with my superior. I tried to include one rule of my own: show that you know your pupils. But there were times when this rule was incompatible with those of my headteacher.

Perhaps I should have used more positive jargon. For example, I could have used "verbally challenging" to describe pupils who constantly answered me back, "lively" for those who went walkies round the classroom all day, and "expressive" for pupils who threw furniture around the class. This early experience of "honest" reports has enabled me to collect a bank of comments that suit any type of pupil in Cool Britannia's less than truthful but positive society.

Describing pupils as "lazy" or "disruptive" invites parental confrontation. The same pupils may be described as "difficult to motivate", "yet to achieve their potential". Similarly, pupils who "never pay attention" are "easily distracted", requiring "to develop listening skills".

One aim of reports is to give parents a clear view of their child's progress. Does the information conveyed to parents in reports achieve this?

The primary report card of my past involved minimal teacher time as teachers did not have to examine their pupils' progress in detail. It contained boxes for subject grades, test marks, position in the class and a general comment by the class teacher.

Grades ranged from Ex for excellent to P for poor. This allowed parents to compare their child's abilities throughout the (albeit smaller) primary curriculum, and to compare their child's progress in specific areas with that of previous years. For example, VG for English remained constant throughout my primary years, but my maths grades showed a gradual weakness as I progressed through primary.

My parents were satisfied with this report as it conveyed the information that they required.

Although today's reports contain extensive information, they do not provide clear insight into pupils' strengths. Parents of primary pupils who achieve a higher level at national tests in mathematics than written English can be misled into assuming that their child is stronger in one than the other.

From my experience, pupils in general perform better in mathematics. One possible reason is that teachers teach maths better than they do written English. Another is that, although these tests share the same levels, written English is the more difficult paper.

Furthermore, reports offer little insight into the child's attainment in comparison with that of his peers. Parents of primary pupils frequently ask teachers to comment on how their child is performing in relation to other pupils in the class. Such information is not deemed appropriate for parents. Primary teachers skirt round the issue by talking in terms of reading, writing or number ability groups.

This can be confusing for parents of low ability children whose reports contain comments that their child is "working well" and "making excellent progress". Some parents require clarification that this clearly "good" report is not an assurance that their child is bright and able. The report card of my youth shed more light on this area.

It can also be argued that today's reports provide parents with information that they have little interest in. For example, are parents really interested in how their child is progressing in religious and moral education? Yet because it is included in 5-14, teachers are required to assess and report on this area.

One innovation, adopted by some schools, is an opportunity for parents to comment on their child's report. Parents who have responded, welcomed being included. I recently received this parental comment: "It's good that the report asks for my comments. I like that."

No further comment was included but, like the teacher report that this parent received, it was positive.

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