Could do better at reporting

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
We are currently considering the whole work-life balance agenda. One of the biggest drains on teachers is the need to produce reports in the summer term which is overcrowded with Sats, sports days, residential visits and any number of end-of-year activities. We want to see if, by starting now, we can find some sort of creative solution which might free staff from this task so that they can enjoy this term as much as the pupils.

There is, of course, a statutory requirement for schools to produce a written report on pupil progress, and for parents to be given the opportunity to discuss the report with teachers. How you interpret this requirement is down to you.

You may decide to take a minimalist approach to the report, letting parents know on a numerical scale 0 to 5, or A to E, how their children have performed and how much effort they have expended. Additional comments may offer explanatory insights like "could do better" or "works to potential".

Over the years, generations of parents have been quite accepting of reports like these, not questioning their ambiguity and lack of substance.

As technology has increasingly made its presence felt, many commercial companies have leapt to address an obvious need, and schools have moved wholeheartedly into the use of report writing systems which require teachers to make selections from a stock of statements after rewriting them to fit the school's own style. Parents tend to be mildly hostile to this solution; they have never cared for a "best fit" description of their child. It can be particularly irritating for a parent to read the exact same description of a sibling, comma for comma, several years after the report on the first child.

Some parents want to be assured that their child's report is written by a teacher who knows their child through and through, who recognises strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies and who values and feels affection for them. Some simply want to know whether their child is performing at an above or below average level. Some scan the report filtering for negative comments - these give them the opportunity to let the child know that they are disappointed yet again (as their own parents were doubtless disappointed). Some parents, typically of younger children, are only interested in comments on confidence and social competence. Some appreciate a blow by blow account of skills and knowledge acquired throughout the year and others have no interest whatsoever.

We need to be aware that our audience for these painstakingly written reports is not a homogenous group. Requests for feedback inevitably reflect the range of personalities, background and attitudes of a large number of people whose only common characteristic may be that they have children who attend your school.

Regardless of the variety of responses to the report, there is an implicit view that it has been written in about the same amount of time as it takes to read.

So, what to do. We know that teachers are spending the best part of an hour on each child's report - about six full days for a class of 30. The report is sent to parents and is followed up with an opportunity for parent and teacher to get together in a 10-minute slot at a parents' evening.

Teachers, having given up a run of evenings and weekends writing the reports, are then expected to work their way along a conveyor belt of meetings which do nothing for communication. It's no wonder that many teachers regard this end of the summer term with dread and regard the whole work-life balance debate with doubt and derision.

In my opinion we need to draw a clear line between the curriculum on offer and reporting on how the pupil approaches learning. Parents need to be informed about what is going to be taught; this can be done at the beginning of the year, through induction meetings or simple curriculum maps which present schemes of work in lay terms. Then, we could do much more to give them a clear understanding of what successful learning looks like, or what successful learners do. They should have real insight into learning preferences and styles, and how emotional intelligence and positive attitudes impact on achievement.

The report should simply refer to this information which should be in the parents' hands throughout the year. Attainment could be graded simply. And pupils, equipped with a clear understanding of how they behave as learners, how much commitment they have been prepared to invest, how resourceful, responsible and resilient they have been, should be quite able to contribute the lion's share of the report, thus communicating directly with their parent and sparing their teachers from using time and precious energy producing a document of little worth.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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