Paperwork may come and go but a report is for life

When trying to sum up your pupils' progress, be careful what you say about naughty Johnny or lazy Mary - your words could come back to haunt you, warns Sara Bubb

I don't want to alarm you, but writing reports is probably the most important thing you will do as a teacher. Reports are read over and over again by many people, passed around families and friends, and kept for posterity. I bet yours are still in some safe place at home.

Even though you may think much of the other paperwork you do has little purpose, reports matter. What you write will last forever, and may come back to haunt you. Your report on a nine-year-old who "can identify and keep the beat in a piece of music" might seem embarrassingly like damning with faint praise when he's a famous musician featured on This Is Your Life.

Reports also form part of the induction standards you must show you have reached by the end of your first year in teaching. These say you must liaise effectively with pupils' parents or carers through informative oral and written reports on pupils' progress and achievements, discussing appropriate targets, and encouraging them to support their children's learning, behaviour and progress.

Writing reports is time-consuming for all teachers, but for the newly qualified it can seem a mammoth task. Don't be deceived by computer programs that promise to do it all for you - the process still takes ages. Although you will have had a session on reports during your training, you will have had little opportunity to develop this skill - and it's a skill that takes time and practice. Speak to your induction tutor about how much detail to put in. I know of schools that go for something quite minimalist but others require a lengthy paragraph on each subject. The structure varies, too. Some have statements about the curriculum covered by the whole class, so you need to make comments only about each individual's overall progress.

Build up a bank of useful phrases, particularly ones that express criticisms in a positive way. Read last year's reports to get a feel for style and talk to other teachers to see how you can be honest but positive. A phrase such as, "She produces good work when she applies effort" sounds so much better than, "She's bone idle". Remember that even your most dreaded pupil is someone's baby.

Think of the overall big message you want the pupil and parents to get before you get bogged down in detail. Having up-to-date records will help.

Ask pupils to provide a self-assessment - what they are good at, have made progress in, have enjoyed, need to improve. Their views are usually accurate.

Write succinctly. Try to make specific contextual comments to give a flavour of the individual. Reports should be clearly understood by parents or carers, so avoid educational jargon. This is easier said than done when it comes to talking about place value in maths, for instance. Start with positive comments before introducing negative ones. Make clear what the pupil has to do to improve.

Draw up a timetable for writing your reports. Pace yourself - you can't knock them out in a rush. If you write yourself an objective about reports you can justifiably spend some of your 10 per cent reduced timetable writing them. Choose a straightforward child to write about first to get into the swing, but show it to a senior member of staff for approval before doing the rest. One NQT wrote all his reports at half-term but had to rewrite them all because they weren't good enough.

Build rewards into your timetable - anything to make you stick to it. Believe me, the sense of achievement when they're all done is fantastic.

Sara Bubb works with NQTs and overseas-trained teachers in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Lewisham, Jersey and at the London Institute of Education

For the record

Report-writing checklist

* Draw up a timetable of when you're going to write your reports.

* Speak to others about how they go about them.

* Read old reports to get a feel for style and useful phrases.

* Write a straightforward one first.

* Use some of your 10 per cent release time to write them.

* Ask the children to do a self-assessment.

* Think of the overall big message.

* Write succinctly and avoid jargon.

* Start with positive comments.

* Phrase negatives positively.

* Suggest what the pupil has to do to improve.

* Get them checked by a senior member of staff.

Ask yourself

* Have I commented on all the necessary areas?

* Have I made any spelling or grammatical mistakes?

* Will the parentcarer understand it?

* Does it give a clear, accurate picture?

* Is it positive?

* Are weaknesses mentioned?

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