'Tis the season to wrestle reports
It's report-writing season! Visiting some friends recently, we were talking about school reports because their daughter had just received hers. What did my wife and I think of the report, our friends asked - a natural question since we are both heavily involved in the business of educating the young.
As far as we could tell, the report was very flattering, but it was littered with irritating jargon and chunks of numerical data, with no explanation of what they meant. The tone was oddly cold and much of it could have described any child.
There was little that summed up the characteristics of this particular child. The reason was obvious: the report had been written using a piece of computer software.
I hate reports written like that. You choose what you think is an appropriate comment from a bank of open-ended phrases that don't tell a parent very much at all. "Could do better" (well, couldn't they all?); "Is making progress in this subject" (now writes three words for a story instead of one); "Has a sound grasp of concepts" (but can't apply any of them); "Has moved one step up the P scales and is working towards level 1" (you what?). Well, you know the sort of thing.
I'm aware that secondary teachers, who often have to write a short subject-specific piece for the 200 students they teach, often swear by computerised assistance. But primary teachers have 30 reports to write at most, and by doing a handful a night in the last term they can produce interesting, worthwhile documents.
My teachers are even luckier. No class contains more than 23 children. Even so, I never ask my teachers to produce any kind of documentation that isn't important and relevant. But I do ask them to take their time over reports. What a parent wants to know is actually very simple. Is my child working well? Is she happy and motivated at school? How does she compare with her peers. What are her strengths and weaknesses - and how can we help?
Writing an accurate report is demanding and we try hard to get it right. I read them all before adding my signature, though I rarely have to reject any. It wasn't always so. Early in my headship, one of my teachers spelt the word "verbal" incorrectly on every one of her reports, and in those days there were no computers to guide the hesitant speller.
Sometimes teachers come and chat to me because they are lost for words. A child they are teaching can be thoroughly irritating, making what seems like little progress, and yet you know there is great potential in there somewhere.
Oliver in Year 2 was such a child. He spent all day fiddling with anything that was to hand, cleverly fashioning some kind of toy, model or alien spacecraft from it. One afternoon, in desperation, his teacher sent him to me for an hour.
I sat him on the carpet in front of my desk, where he couldn't touch anything at all. Within minutes, he had rolled a tiny ball of carpet fluff, teased out eight hair-like strands from it, and plopped it on my desk. "That's for you," he said. "It's a spider".
One day, Oliver will probably be running the country. But in the meantime, a succession of bewildered teachers will be wondering what on earth to write on his school report.
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.