Reports are only good for giving parents a laugh

4th February 2011 at 00:00

In many ways the head appeared to be doing well. Nearly all the bases in the new stadium of enlightenment were covered, except for that new and rather left-field "baccalaureate" base. Premises secure? Check. Staffroom paedophiles all winkled out? Check. Good Ofsted report? Check. Shrunken budget sorted? Er, cheque's in the post.

The problem was that many of the parents didn't seem at all concerned about those issues. They were distracted by the hilarious yet alarming illiteracy of the head's teaching staff, as revealed in their children's school reports. Phone calls and letters flooded in. Reporting season was the new hunting season.

Eventually things grew so dire that the head decided to "outsource" the report-writing to a local book critic versed in the traditional rules of grammar and spelling. The critic normally rewrote the whole lot.

All of that is a slight embellishment of the situation at a school depicted in the novel A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Things in the real report-writing world may not be quite so pitiful, but Faulks's scenario is surely not a million miles off the mark.

To suggest here that pupil reports should be abolished because they invite ridicule may not be the soundest educational idea to have emerged from my own one-man think-tank. However, the blundering-teacher factor cannot be ignored. We depend on parents' support and yet schools often do much to undermine it. Even The Sun proclaimed recently, "14 spelling mistakes in child's school report". It was a shaming tale, complete with the inevitable picture of a headteacher looking remorseful.

But perhaps a more important reason for scrapping reports is that there really isn't an educational case for them. A vast amount of teachers' time is invested in writing and checking them, but I have never seen any evidence to suggest that they make a long-term difference to pupils' effort and performance. It's a massive investment with little or no return.

Most schools now provide parents with regular summaries of progress through the post or online. This information, together with parents' evenings and occasional contact over matters of congratulation or concern, should be enough, along with a class tutor's written overview at the end of the school year.

In place of reports, schools should steer parents towards looking more closely at their children's marked work. We should guarantee one piece of "specially focused marking" in every subject, every half-term. Pupils and parents could then study and respond to a teacher's detailed comments and advice in a more productive and memorable way.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of our job is the amount of time we spend on tasks that are of little or no value: the evenings spent writing reports and the relative lack of response to our many hours of marking. If we scrap reports and encourage parents and pupils to focus more on marking then we can start to convert futile hours into fruitful ones.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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