The software solution
We'd already moved away from handwritten reports to word-processed ones, but we believed a report-writing programme would reduce the burden on the staff. Whatever system you choose, there's no avoiding the fact that writing reports is time-consuming, but you have to balance that with the fact that they are extremely useful for both parents and students. They have to be done, so it's a question of finding the most efficient way of doing them.
We looked at several software packages. Our eventual choice, Carn Software, was based largely on the flexibility it offered. It comes with a statement bank, but it's easy to add your own preferred comments to the bank, or to ignore it and use your own words. Opinion was initially divided on the merits of using an ICT package. Some staff found that it took them longer to write reports because they were getting to grips with the system; others felt the benefits straight away. I'm sure this year everyone will be more skilled at using the statement bank, and there should be real savings in terms of time.
The form tutors and senior management also benefit because it's so much easier to collate the reports and you can see immediately if there's anything missing. It can all be read on screen right up to the minute when the final version is printed.
Most teachers are honest and conscientious in their report writing. Every subject report is read by a member of the senior management team, so if there's a problem, perhaps with the report being too short, we would ask the teacher concerned to make some changes. But I do have sympathy for staff who teach a lot of classes and who might have several hundred reports to write. All teachers try to be positive, and target setting plays an important part in that. At the same time, if someone's distracted in class you can't shy away from telling parents. You usually find that any problems tend to show through across the whole report.
At Whalley Range we give parents three reports a year, but two of these are progress reports, which are just one sheet of A4. They show grades for targets, effort and attainment and any concerns. The end-of-year report is a more substantial record of achievement, with written comments for each subject.
Parents get a lot more information now than when I first started teaching; then it was really just brief comment such as "satisfactory" or "could do better". Most parents seem to appreciate this information, but only if they have a clear understanding of what it means. Our solution is to hold regular "expectation evenings", when parents are invited into school and we explain to them how they should interpret comments on the reports, and what the grades mean. We've also standardised reports across all age groups so that parents get accustomed to the format. Finally, reports are given out before parents' evenings, so that parents can have the document with them when they talk to teachers. That way the report becomes a starting point for a conversation.
I think the system we have works well, but I wouldn't rule out moving towards an online document. We're thinking of introducing online assessment as part of our personalised learning plan, and I can see how it could also encompass the end-of-term reports.
liz hole Liz Hole is assistant head at Whalley Range high school, Manchester, an 11-18 secondary with around 1,800 pupils. She was talking to Steven Hastings