Ted Wragg has some suggestions about what not to say in your end of year reports
The 1967 Plowden Report proposed annual reports for parents, but not until the 1990s did they get a legal right to have them. The era of "satisfactory work and progress" spawned the idea, but the computer age eventually delivered it.
I watched with fascination over the years as "satisfactory" gave way to the repeated naming of children in school reports, in order to make them seem more personal: "Fiona writes nicely in Fiona's book, does Fiona; and Fiona's sums are nicely done - by Fiona, of course." Well done, er, what's her name again?
Writer's cramp is not the only hazard lying in wait for the unwary report writer. Simple though it may seem on the surface, report writing is a bear trap. To criticise a child is to criticise a gene. The wrath of the whole family will descend on the perpetrator.
One of the reasons why multiple-choice items became so popular in the United States was that, when parents objected to teachers' subjective judgments, it seemed easier to quote scores from supposedly objective tests: "You don't agree with Michael's grade? Here's the scoring grid. Check it yourself."
One new teacher was determined to pull no punches in his written comments in the belief that parents needed to know the truth, not some sterilised version of it. Phrases like, "A cruel misuser of the English language" adorned his class reports. He was lynched at his first parents' evening.
The sheer volume of prose involved when writing individual appraisals of 30 or more children, and often covering several subjects, soon led to computer power being drafted in to help. Commercial firms were eager to sell user-friendly software, guaranteed to give parents the impression that every comment had been lovingly handcrafted.
Typically you have to select from choices and the computer prints them on a template. The personalised sounding, "I am delighted to say that your Fiona has performed well in English this year" is likely to have been generated from: "I am (insert adjective) to say that your (insert name) has performed (insert adverb) in (insert subject) this year."
What might happen if the program went wrong? "I am delirious to say that your Fatso has performed stupendously well in advanced skiving this year..."
Reports have made steady progress over the decades, you could say. With some room for improvement, of course.
Ted's tips for teachers
1 Try to make the report sound personal, so that it really is about Fiona, and not Thingummy or "this class".
2 Be specific where possible. "Slipshod homework" is too vague. "Needs to check his maths calculations carefully before handing them in" is more focused.
3 Avoid jargon. "She has covered all the key stage attainment targets and flangified breezlebugs of the globberific noodledoms," means less than, "She has grasped all the topics we have covered in science, apart from electricity."
4 Make positive comments, indicating good points, so that criticisms are put in context: "His written work is usually good, but the presentation of it is sometimes untidy," rather than, "Scruffy presentation spoils the look of his written work."
5 Never scribble the words, "Illegible handwriting." It is embarrassing to have to decipher them for someone.
6 Check for spelling errors and use a dictionary when in doubt. Mangled words like "standerd" and "sentance", or the incorrect use of the apostrophe, wreck credibility with parents.
7 Try and stress the positive without over-enthusing about all aspects of every pupil's work. Be diplomatic, but a fair-minded account is needed.
8 Discuss the report with parents when possible. At the next parents' meeting, refer back to your comments and check subsequent progress.
9 Remember human judgments, however well-researched and intended, can sometimes be frail, so never give the impression in a report that the last word has been spoken. There is always hope for the future.
10 Before putting pen to paper, imagine that you are a parent receiving the report. What will it mean? Empathising with the audience is just as important for teachers as for children learning to write.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University