Reports are a contentious issue. In the workload study carried out by PriceWaterhouse Coopers in 2001, secondary teachers put report writing high up their list of "excessive tasks", behind only "general administration" and "preparing resources". Teacher unions responded by arguing for a maximum of 400 words per pupil, per year, but they had to be content with Department for Education and Skills guidance that says reports should be "crisp, concise and easy to understand".
Unfortunately, the guidance itself doesn't always fit that description. It is laid out at considerable length in the key stage assessment and reporting arrangement booklets that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority sends to every school (see resources). These arrangements are statutory. In summary, they stipulate that schools must issue a written report for each child at least once a year containing brief particulars of achievement in every activity or subject studied as part of the curriculum and (except in key stage 1) the child's strengths and development needs.
The child's "general progress" also has to be described. At the end of each key stage, national curriculum andor exam results have to be reported too, for the individual child and for the year group as a whole.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL
How, in practice, does a school interpret "brief particulars" of achievement and progress? The QCA says this should be "general enough to suggest breadth and specific enough to give parents a clear understanding of their child's progress". Which doesn't help much. But there is sensible advice about the report overall, which should be clear, straightforward and jargon-free, with comments that are "succinct, precise and appropriate"; and it should indicate whether or not the child is happy, settled, and behaving well.
MICHELLE AND tOM'S STORY
The half a dozen examples given are not always reassuring and certainly not succinct. Take "Michelle" for example. At key stage 1, it takes the teacher 400 words to cover English, maths and science ("she needs to develop her understanding of how to organise a scientific test") and 200 more for PSHE, citizenship and PE ("she selects and makes use of skills well in different activities to implement simple tactics in games and design sequences and routines in dance and gymnastics"). It's some relief to find that the rest of the curriculum is covered by attainment statements and tick boxes.
For the imaginary teachers of "Tom Green" at key stage 3, life is slightly simpler. They complete pro forma subject reports, pre-printed with lengthy summaries of the programme of study and a five-scale tick-box grid for attainment, progress, effort and behaviour. So far so good. But then they have to fill in boxes labelled "strengths", "areas for improvement" and "targets". Here - to judge by the examples given - a sort of verbal paralysis sets in. All the comments are framed in national curriculumese.
"Tom has developed a good range of skills and techniques that he can consistently select and combine with precision, control and fluency." Words for the sake of words, and no hint to Tom's parents of any enthusiasm or enjoyment.
TACKLING THE PROBLEM
Trapped between the rock of government regulations and the hard place of workload and time constraints, teachers have to find a way out. The answer for most is to use the QCA outlines but to modify and personalise the style. At Northwood primary on the Isle of Wight, which has 200 pupils, headteacher Vicki Johnson adds a comment to every child's summer report.
And she expects to recognise every pupil from the words she has in front of her, "a description in each curriculum area of where the child is now; clear guidelines as to what that pupil needs to do to keep improving (which may very well be 'keep on as you are') and a recognition in every line that the report is addressed not just to the parent but to the child as well".
At Firth Park community school in Sheffield, the emphasis again is on getting students, as well as their parents, to understand the mysteries of target-setting and assessment. The school issues termly data reports and an annual subject report that concentrates on progress including current attainment level, attitude, organisation, classwork, homework, and attendance. Strengths and weaknesses (always more of the former) are crisp and positive; targets are realistic and pupil-friendly. The subject master sheet is called up on a computer and completed on screen, or printed and filled in by hand, and the complete report is issued in a personal A4 folder.
SO IS ICT THE ANSWER?
Not completely, although there's no doubt that report-writing software has improved enormously in recent years, and teachernet.co.uk - developed by the DfES - advises that computerised systems save time and money. Where early versions restricted teachers to stock phrases from a "statement bank", modern packages allow much more opportunity to personalise comments.
At Oxclose primary in County Durham, staff found their original program made all reports sound the same. "We couldn't tell one pupil from another," says headteacher Jo Frost. So they got together and rewrote the comments to suit their needs. "Now the reports are more individual, and we like it because we developed it ourselves."
Some software does more than just offer teachers a short cut to favourite comments; it writes the report for them. For example, Chiltern Education's Report Writer program allows staff to enter marks during the course of the year and then produces an appropriate report at the touch of a button.
"Teachers can still individualise reports if they want," says Chiltern's managing director, Phil Mann, "but the skeleton report means 95 per cent of the work is done.And the comments don't all come out the same; the program has 150 ways of saying 'satisfactory'."
A software package can save time, but it brings other benefits. "It's not just about content, it's about presentation; schools get a report that looks professional," says Simon Lewis of Carn Software, which provides more than 200 secondary schools with a report-writing program (see case study, page 14). "Nothing else that comes through your door these days is handwritten, except maybe a note from the window cleaner. A handwritten report sends out the wrong message."
Most report packages allow schools to customise the look of reports and to choose A5, A4 or A3 format. Most also contain sophisticated spelling and grammar checks. Another advantage is that the central administrator can see who has and who hasn't filed reports, making it easy to chase up anyone who's dragging their heels.
WHAT'S IN A WORD?
It helps to keep reports simple. Parents want the broad picture, not the detail. But even experienced report writers sometimes find themselves falling back on a well-worn repertoire of words and phrases. They become human versions of the statement data bank, and complete their reports in record time. But parents (who always compare notes) can spot a set of identikit comments a mile off, as will department heads or senior managers.
A National College for School Leadership conference earlier this year looked at how inspirational language could help transform the way reports were written and received. "Since when do you pat your children on the shoulder and tell them they are really satisfactory?" asked Tim Brighouse,chief adviser for London schools. Above all, beware of labelling children. However difficult you find them, it's their progress and their behaviour you're describing, not their upbringing, and not their genes.
STAGGERED, NOT STAGGERING
If teachers sometimes end up repeating themselves or resorting to cliches, it may be because they're writing too many reports. It's important that the school policy on report writing is linked to an overall strategy for communicating with parents and pupils. Some schools send out reports at the end of each term, others only at the end of the year. And the idea that reports should always be produced at the end of a term is based largely on tradition; a mid-year report can be just as valuable. Some schools have experimented with one report a year, with parents able to request an additional report. Another compromise is to have a parents' evening or a report each term, never both. But other schools see reports and parents'
evenings as working together, giving parents a chance to discuss what's been written.
Whatever the system, senior management must ensure that staff are not forced to do all their reports in a short space of time; that's when fatigue sets in and quality suffers.
STRAIGHT TALK OR SWEET TALK
Vicki Johnson remembers a teacher's report about one of her school friends.
"A pretty girl," it read, "but nothing between her ears." "We've come a long, long way since then," she says.
While personal insults should be a thing of the past, there's still some variation in how honest teachers are prepared to be. It's important to be positive wherever possible, of course, and "working towards a B" offers more encouragement than "has achieved a C". But some teachers take the euphemisms too far and gloss over failings, perhaps for fear of creating conflict with parents. They say Kevin is "a lively contributor to lessons" when what they mean is "out of control".
On the other hand, if you are going to offer criticism, stick to the constructive variety and try to make sure comments don't come out of the blue, but reflect what you've been saying to the pupil during the term. And be prepared to stand by what you write; most reports are followed by a parents' meeting where you may be asked to elaborate. You should welcome the opportunity, provided you have the data or record book notes you made at the time, and you haven't been rash enough to write: "Kevin wastes far too much time fooling about in class." Parents might regard stopping classroom jinks as your job, so it may have been wiser to have written:
"Kevin's concentration is poor. He sometimes distracts himself and others."
IT'S TRUE, I REALLY COULD DO BETTER...
Student self-assessment isn't new. It was tried in many schools in the 1980s, but was overshadowed by the specific national assessment stipulations that followed. Now technology encourages it and makes the whole process more manageable. A pilot scheme run by the Scottish Executive has been looking at ways of adding a pupil's self-assessment to the reports that go to parents, and has found that the children are invariably honest and shrewd in their reporting.
Alun Rees, head of Boston Spa comprehensive, Leeds, agrees that involving pupils in their reports - at least at secondary level - makes a lot of sense. "We're already negotiating target grades and levels with students; we're asking them to sign in for constant self-assessment. So it's only right for students to comment on their reports, on the progress they are making and the difficulties they encounter."
In any case, he says, student comments can be the most insightful. "They are perceptive and, like the best of their teachers, they don't waste words."
Some brave teachers have been known to turn the tables and invite classes to write a report on the quality of their teaching. And at the progressive independent Summerhill school in Suffolk, teachers write reports, but it's up to students to decide whether or not they want to read them. "Most of the younger ones don't bother, but when they reach their GCSE year they tend to start having a look," says Celia Leggett, the school administrator.
Reports are sent home if parents request them, but only with the child's permission.
WHAT OF THE FUTURE?
Will we be sending reports by email? Maybe there will be no reports at all.
Or perhaps a "fitness rating" alongside academic achievement, as the Liberal Democrats proposed earlier this year in their campaign to beat childhood obesity.
At Chafford Hundred Campus secondary school in Thurrock, an ICT package designed by software company Connetix (see resources) is used to create an "ongoing dialogue" with parents. It includes an online learning log where marks and comments are posted by teachers, pupils and parents throughout the term. And reports are also being produced online, rather than on paper.
Parents were invited into school, so that students could show them how the system would work. Parents who remained unconvinced were invited to request a "hard copy" of the report, but only eight out of 160 did. "More than 85 per cent of our parents have internet access, a high proportion of which is broadband," says assistant head Mark Bennison. "And because we're a community school, parents who don't have access can use the computers in the on-site library."
Parents see the document before the pupils and can add their own comments.
"We create a live document, with room for reflection and discussion; it's far more useful than a traditional report."