The Mistry of reports

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Time was when you knew parents would appreciate your written assessment, says Geoff Brookes

We spend an inordinate amount of time producing high-quality reports. We set individual targets, reflect on individual performance, mark and assess and draw helpful conclusions. We measure our words and strive to give exactly the right message.

We see them as important documents to be treasured. Influential, purposeful, inspirational. Perhaps, though, we are living in a fantasy land.

There has been a huge change in the way we write the things. The traditional comments about effort and attitude, the famous comments on future celebrities that come back to haunt the unwary teacher, are being replaced by detailed analysis of syllabus coverage and an assessment of targets attained and those yet to be reached. And then we dispatch them to the black hole called home.

Adam hid his behind the DVD player. His parents never thought to ask where his end-of-year report might be. Such is the impact this crucial document has always had in that house.

When I asked Natasha's dad about her report he said that it was nothing to do with him. "Ain't read it. Our Tash sorts all that stuff out herself. It is her report. Nuffink to do with me."

It is all very dispiriting. We put all our professional pride into them.

And in some homes they are nothing more than an irrelevance. But we keep on doing them.

Teachers can sometimes see the report as a mechanism for revenge, pouring all their frustrations into a couple of pithy sentences. I am sure that it has a therapeutic effect. But sadly, when it gets home, if it is read at all it is often ignored.

Apart from anything else, parents do not always draw the conclusions that we intended. They cannot decode them. Teachers end up writing in their own special vocabulary that speaks of an enclosed world that others cannot penetrate. Parents are always turning up, asking what a report means, wondering whether it is good or bad.

And do employers understand them? I think not. All this about achieving level 5 in speaking and listening is less important to Dai the breadman than whether Joey will turn up for work every day.

Those who are old-fashioned enough to want to see a school report are interested in different things. Will Kelly have her hands in the till? Will Damion nick the paper clips?

At the heart of the process there is perhaps a confusion about who these things are for. Is our audience the students themselves? Or parents? Employers? Or are we only writing for other teachers and their institutions? At the moment we are trying to reach too many people with different needs.

Now in its recent guidelines on the workload agreement, the National Union of Teachers has suggested an upper limit on what teachers should write.

I would go along with that. What is the point of banging out an essay when you are unsure about the audience?

We write them because we expect a response. We expect to see an improvement in work and attitude. And does it happen? Very rarely. If we cannot establish such a dialogue with parents or our students, then reports serve little purpose. The process becomes nothing more than a period of extended grief for teachers and the administration staff.

The move is inevitably towards computerised reports. Pre-prepared statements, linked together to form a neatly-typed summary. An automatic system for the people. Some find them a bit impersonal but is anything else a productive use of a teacher's time?

It will certainly make them easier to churn out. It might edge us more and more towards grim sentences about attainment targets and levels, but at least they will look good. And probably they will have the same impact as any other kind.

Reporting has always been a hugely time-consuming process. with all its writing, checking, collating and processing. It becomes a period of unremitting dreariness. But we will continue to do them.

They are another of the landmarks that marks out our year with long sessions of reflection and analysis. A period of the classroom experience summarised and filed, and so we can move on to the next.

When I was a young teacher we would invent fictitious students - usually called VJ Mistry - and write detailed reports for them. The object was to see how many we could get the head to sign in the belief that he really existed.

I think he rather enjoyed the challenge. It certainly broke the tedium. And because it was a bit of fun, VJ always had a really professional product.

We knew why we were doing it. We knew who it was for. And we knew that it was not going to be hidden behind the fish tank.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed comprehensive, Swansea

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Email: 029 2066 0207

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Ysgrifennwch at: TES Cymru,Ty Sophia, 28 Heol yr Eglwys Gadeiriol, Caerdydd CF11 9LJ. Ebost: 029 2066 0207

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