It's a time of the year that many teachers dread: the writing of end-of-term reports. It's not that teachers do not appreciate their importance, but writing them can be a high-pressure activity, as dozens (sometimes hundreds) have to be written, checked and dispatched in a short space of time.
But there is a possible solution for teachers struggling with reports: software designed to make the job faster, easier and more accurate.
"Report-writing software means that I can write all my reports in two or three evenings, with another couple to proof read and add the personal comments," says Peter Fogarty, a primary school teacher based in Romania.
"Writing reports can be very hard for teachers," says Daryl King, director of ReportPlus, a report-writing software vendor. "If you've got a class of 35, there will be many pupils in the middle at a similar level and who are hard to differentiate. Report-writing software gives you more choice when it comes to making statements about pupils."
Alison Allen, a teacher at the Brent Primary in Dartford, Kent, describes how laborious report writing used to be for her: "I was downloading statements, making my own up, putting them into Word and then cutting and pasting them into the school format. Using software means I can now personalise reports, instead of spending most of my time cutting and pasting."
The software comes in many forms, but most offer large statement banks from which teachers can select statements to produce a report. It is no surprise that many software products have been designed by teachers.
Simon Currigan and his wife Sarah are both primary school teachers and have developed the Report King, which unlike most report-writing software, does not use a statement bank. Instead, teachers enter a child's national curriculum levels and QCA data, and a report is automatically generated (attendance data can also be added). "It gets rid of the blank-page syndrome," says Mr Currigan.
Rachel Johnson is an ex-primary teacher and co-founder of ReportBox, an online report writing system used by dozens of primary schools.
"Report-writing software gives teachers more time to create better-quality reports, and features like spellcheckers mean they are more accurate, too," she says.
Teachers at Whoberley Hall Primary in Coventry are using ReportBox. Headteacher Laura Crane explains: "Our old report system was very unwieldy - it was very long and detailed and had far more information than parents required. I also had three NQTs and felt they needed a report system that provided a framework and some support."
The school looked at a number of report-writing packages because there were several criteria, says Mrs Crane. "We wanted something that was easy for parents to read, easy to use and administer, wasn't complex to set up, cut down on workload and gave us good-quality reports."
Jo Ashworth, assistant headteacher at Potters Green Primary in Coventry, says using ReportBox in her school has saved teachers time, meaning they do not feel under so much pressure at report time.
Winns Primary in Walthamstow, north-east London, uses another package, Primary Report Writer.
"We wanted to make our reports more effective and more consistent across the year group," explains deputy headteacher Bryony Roberts. "Before we used the software, teachers would be putting reports on to disks and I would print them out. If a teacher was absent, you couldn't finish the report. Also, we wanted to get the worklife balance right. Reports are important, but we didn't want teachers spending all weekend writing them. We've saved a lot of time."
Students also benefit, says Peter Fogarty. "The reports are a closer match to their own achievements, and they are not being simply shoe-horned into generic high, medium or low groups. The report has a much greater relevance as to what they can do, and provides a much better idea about which areas of the curriculum they are good at, and where they need to work harder."
Some programs are available online, while others come on a CD. "If you use a CD-based system, you've got to install it on every teacher's laptop, but an online system bypasses that," says Ms Roberts.
Mrs Crane adds: "An online system means you can access reports from anywhere and at any time, and see how class reports are progressing. As a manager, that's a very useful feature to have."
That said, with CD-based solutions, there is no need to rely on a broadband connection and the software can be installed on the school server. Mrs Allen, who is using a test version of ReportPlus, says: "I've never needed an online system as I write all my reports at home - I don't have time to do them at school."
Mr Fogarty uses Teachers Report Assistant and reckons he has the best of both worlds. He composes his reports using the software, keeping a copy at home and school. He then uploads his reports on to the school's online report-writing system, where senior management can check them. The school can also print the reports for future reference.
But no piece of technology is perfect. "Teachers still need to proof-read and check," he adds. "You need to check that names are correct, that the grammar is good, and that you've selected the right gender. And you still need to add your own comments and any targets, to ensure the reports are more personal."
After all, the last thing any pupil or parent wants is to think their report was generated by a machine.