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Spellign out the need for accurate end-of-year reports

Proofreaders check teachers' work at West London Free School

Proofreaders check teachers' work at West London Free School

It is a situation familiar to every pupil: after hours of painful labour on a homework task, you find that unforgiving red pen circles all your grammatical errors.

But, at the West London Free School multi-academy trust, it is the teachers whose work is being scrutinised for mistakes. The trust has hired proofreaders to eliminate spelling and grammar inaccuracies - along with unnecessary verbiage - from end-of-year school reports.

The trust's eponymous secondary prides itself on offering a traditional, grammar-school-style education. But school founder and trust chief executive Toby Young, pictured right, estimates that each of the reports written by his teachers contains half a dozen mistakes.

"These mistakes are just typical of people in their twenties and thirties," Mr Young told TES. "Children are now taught grammar, punctuation and spelling, meaning that these kinds of errors are likely to decline in the next generation."

The proofreaders were offered pound;20 an hour to read through the reports produced by schools in the trust: the original secondary, plus two nearby primaries. A single report takes between 10 and 15 minutes to read.

Worth the wait?

One West London Free School parent was surprised by the need for proofreaders, and not entirely satisfied with Mr Young's explanation. "Why can't they do it themselves?" she said. "Can teachers not spell these days? Or why don't they give it to the English department? Surely they're qualified."

And the trust's problems didn't end there, as it experienced difficulties with the professional proofreading company employed to work on the reports.

Mr Young has therefore been doing much of the editing himself. The result is that the reports have been delayed, and some are not being sent out to parents until this week. But he thinks it will be worth it.

"I know from receiving my own children's school reports that they often have niggling little errors in them," Mr Young said. "I think it's safe to say that I've never read a school report that doesn't have at least half a dozen errors. And I have four children, so I've read quite a few."

Typical mistakes that will be highlighted include confusing "practise" (the verb) with "practice" (the noun), and omitting necessary punctuation, such as the comma after "exam" in the phrase "in this year's exam, Johnny underperformed" (see panel, opposite).

Mick Connell, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, agreed that it was important for reports to be accurate. He questioned Mr Young's estimate of errors, however. "A report with half a dozen mistakes would barely communicate," he said. "Overestimation is an insult to teachers, really."

Mr Connell said that he and his colleagues used to check each other's reports before handing them over to the headteacher. He added that schools had to be tactful when correcting errors.

"Any teacher who's ever put a notice on a noticeboard and had some clever wag circle it in red knows that it hurts," Mr Connell said. "It seems to smack somewhere deep, into your education or intellect, as being incomplete or unsatisfactory. Especially if you're an adult, and especially if you're an English teacher. I wonder, in the end, if it's a terribly useful thing to do."

Hardly however

Mr Young has also instructed his proofreaders to watch out for overcomplicated sentences. "They often use three verbs where one would do," he said. He is keen, too, to avoid the use of "however" where "but" could be used.

But (not however) he is quick to clarify that he is not criticising his staff's facility with the English language. "One of the reasons that school reports typically contain some errors is because teachers are so overworked," Mr Young said. "And writing reports is often something they do quite quickly at the last minute.

"That's why I don't think the solution is peer review of reports. That's just creating more work for teachers. I think it would be a bit much for them to spend the first few days of their holidays marking each other's reports."

Practice makes perfect

The mistakes proofreaders at West London Free School will be looking out for include:

Misuse of "practise" (the verb) and "practice" (the noun).

Excessive use of the phrase "ensure that".

Using multiple verbs where a single verb would do - for example, "Johnny should ensure that he tries to apply himself next year", where "Johnny should try harder next year" would serve.

Omitting necessary punctuation - for example, writing "in this year's exam Johnny underperformed", rather than "in this year's exam, Johnny underperformed".

Misuse of prepositions - for example, writing "Johnny's work is to a high standard", rather than "Johnny's work is of a high standard".

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