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The parent trap

Ted Wragg looks at the pitfalls to avoid when writing end-of-year reports.

To wonder computerised reports have gained in popularity. If each child is expected to have an individual personalised statement about every aspect of the curriculum at frequent intervals, then don't be too surprised when some computer pointy-head writes a few hundred lines of machine code to save the profession from writer's cramp.

"Elspeth's maths is (1) excellent, (2) good, (3) fair, (4) poor, (5) so hopeless I put it down entirely to genetics (delete as appropriate)." The personal approach is more time-consuming, but at least it looks genuine, rather than scripted.

There are several stereotypes to avoid when writing reports. The "Emily Bronte" treats each one as a Greek tragedy, eloquently capturing the pathos of life's victims - "Despite several absences and a broken arm Jason has struggled heroically with his spellings". His parents doubtless know about the broken arm, but what is the take on spelling?

The "Whinger" uses reports to peddle a piece of ideology - "Although our programme was severely disrupted by an Ofsted visit and numeracy training, Sharon has managed to make creditable progress". Might as well go the whole hog and put: "Now that Chris Woodhead has gone, the staff, once they have sobered up, willmake great strides".

More odious is the "Crawler", seeking to curry favour with parents by appearing to be super-nice. "I really appreciate the thoughtful way in which Darren has given out the pencils and collected in the children's art work prior to public display". Syrup, syrup, or "please revere me and nominate me for next year's Teaching Awards".

Worse still is the "Clinician", cold, factual, clipped - "He has reached the required standard on all the assessed elements of mathematics at key stage 2". In other words, I have just swallowed a national curriculum folder, so please send me a strong laxative.

Report writing requires common sense. We make children write for different audiences, so the fundamental question is: what does the constituency - for example, Ahmed's mum and dad - want to know? "Think like a parent" is the best advice you can give new teachers writing reports for the first time.

That is why parents' evenings are probably better value than cold prose, however well crafted. Pieces of paper cannot answer questions, whereas people meeting face to face can. Written reports followed by parents' meetings are a sensible compromise, because that way the record can be amplified by personal dialogue.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter.

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