Off the record

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Writing reports should not be regarded as an unwelcome chore, says Luke Darlington who explains how to make the exercise worthwhile

Report writing for a large number of children is a requirement which will become part of your routine. In some schools they may be produced termly, but in the majority they are annual documents. There is plenty of official guidance about what they should include but little about the practicalities of writing them. These tips may help.

There is no hiding the fact that the job is extremely time-consuming, but if you view it as little more than an unwelcome chore there is less chance that any report will be a useful document which is professionally written and well thought out, demonstrating that you fully understand the individual.

Vague comments, jargon, cliches and repetition are not helpful to parents. They are the signs of a teacher who is either struggling for something to say or of one writing under sufferance and doing the minimum. But if you have ideas in draft, compiled throughout the year, the problem need not arise.

Your headteacher will want to read them and may add a personal comment, which is one reason why there will be a deadline for producing your work. It takes time to read, let alone to comment on, say, 300 reports written in a variety of styles. The head's job in this respect is just as onerous as yours.

So how should you set about the report writing? First, if you delay beginning the task then you may only have yourself to blame if you later feel under pressure. Try to establish a routine early on.

Set yourself a high standard. If you make errors and the piece is notable for corrections, start again. Write neatly with a fountain pen, and ensure that your presentation is at least as acceptable as you would expect a child's work to be, including straight margins and horizontal lines. Check the school's policy concerning computer generated reports. Have a dictionary handy and use it: mistakes are inexcusable. Poor grammar, sloppy handwriting and words left out are also a bad advertisement. Take a break if you become tired.

Be systematic and organised. Write at a table in a quiet place. Don't write with the report balanced on your knee while you have half an eye on the television.

Think about your preferred method of working. Will you take one child at a time or a subject? Will you take the children alphabetically or boys followed by girls? Or will you think about their ability and decide to deal with the more problematic children first or last?

Will you draft each paragraph or risk writing a final (possibly inadequate) version? Space in which to write your comments may be a difficulty. If you have large hand-writing there is even more reason to use crisp, well chosen language. Limited space is not an excuse to write very little.

Be positive with your comments and find something good to say about every child without being patronising. Suggest ways for improvement and don't be afraid to tell the truth. Parents are entitled to receive an accurate picture of their child's progress. Disguising the truth for the sake of an easy life can be harmful to the child in the long run, you won't be thanked and you may become accountable.

But if you need to say something about poor work or behaviour which has been ongoing for several months and has not been drawn to the parents' attention, you may be criticised. Teachers and parents need to work in partnership and it is unhelpful to mention matters which required joint remedial action much earlier in the year. Remember, too, that you may need to back up your remarks with evidence if the parents ask to see you.

When you have finished writing check through your work, just as you would expect pupils to do.

Don't forget that each half of a split parental partnership is legally entitled to receive a copy of their child's report. They may not appreciate the unspoken message given by the receipt of a photocopy, so you might need to hand write an extra one. Nevertheless, allow time for photocopies to be made for internal official records.

Finally, imagine that you are a parent on the receiving end of one of your reports. It may reveal much more about you than about the child, and it will certainly tell your headteacher something about your standards and the value you put on what you have done.

You will have many other distractions during a busy term, but try to take a pride in your report writing, and make it worthwhile for all concerned.

Luke Darlington is a recently retired headteacher

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