Why school reports matter – and 4 ways to make them better

1st June 2017 at 15:30
This head of English argues that students and their families really value school reports, so teachers should be given the time to make them as good as they can be

A friend of mine, now in his 40s, proudly keeps his school report from Year 9: “Michael is the life and soul of the party. Unfortunately, we are not having a party.”

He tells me he was naughty; a “teacher’s nightmare,” in fact.

I consider this report to be a piece of craftsmanship. There’s gentleness, coupled with a firm acknowledgement that he was a tricky character. It’s communicated with a perfect light-touch.

My friend is not alone in holding onto this relic; school reports mean a lot to the recipient. They form part of our personal histories. We keep and collate them, poring over them in adulthood to piece together and validate our memories.

They’re held up as evidence that teachers were wrong – “he said I’d amount to nothing, and look at me now!” – or that teachers knew their pupils well: Richard Branson’s teacher reportedly predicted that he would either go to prison or become a millionaire.

The value of school reports

The value placed on reports in some families is immense. At parents’ evening last week, a parent told me that she was going to frame her son’s English report. This sort of reverence is not uncommon.

So let me say it again: school reports mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people.

This sentiment is easily lost by teachers. Writing reports can be a resented, burdensome task. Some teachers spend hours every evening, with the deadline looming, toiling over the details. Copying-and-pasting may have eased the load for some, but only marginally. The unlucky few who are still required to hand-write their reports simply lose out on sleep.

Room for improvement

It is somewhat paradoxical, then, that these precious reports we carry through life, re-read well into adulthood and show to our own children are often written as rush-jobs, late into the night, by teachers with other things on their minds.

The Department for Education requires schools to prepare annual reports for every pupil’s parents. There are ways that teachers and leaders can ensure that we produce high-quality documents while protecting teachers’ wellbeing. Strong leaders and strategic teachers will already be doing these things, but here are some suggestions to make the whole process work well. I am proud to work in a school that manages this well and hopefully these points will be familiar to people already:

 

  1. Be strategic

If you’re reading this as a school leader, clear the diary when it comes to report-writing periods. Meetings, faculty reviews, book scrutiny, parents’ evenings and other such pressures will not help teachers when it comes to writing decent reports. Give people as much time and space as the diary allows. Set a word limit for reports and insist that it’s kept.

  1. Acknowledge the person.

Some teachers have hundreds of reports to write every term – especially in some subject areas at secondary. A personalised opening line can really help here; perhaps something specific about an individual achievement. The rest of the report should, of course, still be about the child, but you can move to subject-specific ideas. At primary, some teachers are required to report on every foundation subject. Again, a line on a personal achievement in each area and then comments on specific areas for development could work well. If the subsequent comments are strategically planned, then they are likely to be of more use to the pupil and parents.

  1. Use specific and meaningful comment banks

Some people are against comment banks. Some schools even have a policy of not allowing them. For the teachers who are required to write reports once a term for hundreds of students, they’re a lifeline. After a personalised opening, comment banks can be set up to give thoughtful, specific and meaningful targets. They can save hours of teacher time and ensure that the areas for development are unambiguous and entirely relevant to the curriculum. There are websites full of comment banks, but the best ones will be written by you and your team for your own school context.

  1. Be a role model

This is another one for school leaders. Report-writing is stressful, difficult and many want to see the back of it. The heaviest burden falls on the teachers with the largest teaching load. If you’re a member of SLT, take an active role in the report-writing process. Some school reports include an SLT comment, meaning that all children have their reports read and acknowledged by those at the top. If this wouldn’t work for your context, then SLT could take the job of proof-reading – another process that consumes time and resources. Get involved and everybody will benefit.

 

Sarah Barker is head of English and drama at St Bernadette Catholic Secondary School in Bristol. She tweets @ladybarkbark and blogs at thestableoyster.wordpress.com.

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