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'School reports have become so impersonal and filled with jargon that they have become meaningless'

School reports not only take longer to write because of restrictive conventions imposed by some schools, but the comments in them have become less honest too, says this teacher

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The reports my secondary school teachers sent to my mum in the 1970s are not extensive. None of my teachers would have run out of ink writing them. Indeed, some comments are just one word; “feckless”, “lazy” and “stubborn” feature often.

You might say, “No wonder they didn’t waste ink on you.” But “hard-working”, “attentive” and “promising” pupils received the one-word treatment too. However, they got a pound extra pocket money and their back patted, while I had the pound taken away and my bum slapped.

Positive or negative, what typified those dash-em-off reports was the frequent focus on personal qualities. Whether character assassinations or compliments, they told parents little about how their child could improve academically. To be fair, my mum was happy to leave that to the school. She was busy slagging off Thatcher and stocking up on candles in case of strikes.

Still, it wasn’t ideal.

Boy, has the pendulum swung. Now a teacher myself, I wonder what parents think of the impersonal, over-formal, euphemistic reports we send them.

Over-formal language

At least “feckless” and “lazy” were honest, clear words. Now, there’s a danger that we smother reports in obscure eduspeak. It took me years to master this strange language myself, with its assessment objectives, attainment targets, CATs, PATs, and Sats. So, why should we inflict it on parents? Also, why can’t I write “Matthew truly understands how Shakespeare’s play makes an audience laugh” rather than “Matthew has effectively grasped the comedic elements inherent in Shakespeare’s drama” as though I’m channelling Olivier?

I’m not implying that parents don’t understand the formal language. I’m saying it makes the report impersonal and robotic, as though the child is an academic project, not a human. Furthermore, the average GCSE pupil will study between 10 and 12 subjects. Do parents read all those reports, or do they turn to New Scientist or The Economist for something lighter?

I love euphemism, in the right context. But I don’t like using it in reports, being nice and kind and gooey, even about someone who never shuts up, doesn’t do homework, and pokes other people with sharp pencils … “Sian’s understanding of when to contribute her strong opinions and her ability to meet deadlines are still in development. She must learn to respect other people’s personal space and their need not to be perforated.”

'Who are these reports for?'

I don’t think we need to patronise parents like this. Or the children.

Some schools I’ve worked in have some very strange report-writing conventions. For instance, how do parents react when their child, who’s been Lizzie since she was two days old, and is called Lizzie by teachers, friends, relations, and dogs in the street, returns to being Elizabeth in all her school reports just for formality’s sake?

In one school, I was not allowed to use an exclamation mark after “Well done”, which made it flat, as if I’d had it forced out of me under torture. And in another, I was not allowed to use the abbreviation “exam”, even though that is what the whole world calls them.

What purpose do these rules serve? Who are we doing it for?

At least when my mum read reports calling me “feckless”, she’d say, “Oh, they’ve got you sussed all right.”

I’m not sure that happens so much now.

The writer is an English teacher at an independent school

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