Like wrestling with a jelly

21st June 1996 at 01:00
Esther Read gives the babysitting circle's verdicton 5-14 report forms. In the normal run of things, my 15-year-old daughter isn't much given to political or social comment. So it was with some surprise that I heard her explode into life at news of calls for the dismissal of Edinburgh University lecturer Chris Brand, following his claims that black people had a lower IQ than whites. "That's diabolical," she declared. "Fancy judging people on the basis of their IQ." Was she missing the point or hitting it exactly?

I was reminded of the incident when my 11-year-old son arrived home carrying our first sight of the "new" 5-14 pupil report. After my first quick read, I decided those who devised the format would endorse my daughter's views entirely. Indeed they would probably go further. Fancy judging people on any kind of basis at all.

It is not that I lack sympathy for those struggling to meet parental demands for information. The straw poll I conducted at our regular meeting of the babysitting circle (not exactly a scientific cross-section of the community but, on the basis of their opinions on other issues, as near as dammit) revealed huge disparity in what people expected.

Comments ranged from "I'd like to know how my child is performing in relation to the rest of the class. Is she top, second top, third bottom?" to "As long as he does what the teacher says, I'm happy" and "All I want to know is that my son's doing the best he can do. It doesn't matter where that puts him in the class, just so long as he's working to the best of his ability." (Interestingly, this was the view supported by the majority).

So what did people think of the new report? "A waste of teachers' time"; "Why go from level A in primary 1 to E in primary 7 when the rest of the world does it the other way round? I spent ages persuading my nine-year-old that his C was actually better than his friend's B, then his sister at the high school came home and was delighted that she'd got a B rather than a C for an essay! I had to start all over again"; "I think the old form actually told you more. These new levels just mystify me. How can someone be working at level A anywhere between primary 1 and secondary 2?" The sense of confusion didn't surprise me. Reading the new report is a bit like wrestling with a jelly. I think I see what's behind the A to E classification (almost all pupils in primary 1 to primary 3, and some in primary 4 to secondary 2, will be working within level A). It's about the fact that children develop at their own pace (isn't it?). So far so good.

But at what stage should we, as parents, decide that they have ceased to develop and start to worry? So far as level A is concerned, primary 4 is the implication, but it is difficult to be sure. The inclusion, somewhere on the form, of the learning outcomes associated with the various levels might help. Then at least we would have some kind of handle on what it all means. Our son's teacher was happy to provide these when asked but why not build them into the process?

The old forms at least had the virtue of being specific, albeit within very broad categories. Against "Number", the teacher could tick "has special aptitudecompetentuncertain of processes", with the safeguard of a space for additional remarks. Under the heading "Effort", the teacher could tick "Satisfactoryunsatisfactory". These descriptions of the abilities and attitude of the individual child (for that is surely what they were) have been replaced by a column headed "Strengths" and another headed "Development Needs".

As it happens, I endorse my daughter's view that there is a lot more to a person than IQ. So, in one sense, I suppose I should applaud these new headings which leave it open to teachers to comment on all aspects of a child's progress. Unfortunately, for the less scrupulous they may also be seen as an invitation to take refuge in generalities. More than that, though, I worry at the replacement of the word "weaknesses" (which you might expect as the opposite of "strengths") with the truly awfully waffley, "development needs".

Is no one to be allowed to fail any more? When I made this point at the babysitting circle I was immediately accused of wanting my son to be "frightened" into doing well. But I spoke as the mother who sent her daughter to piano lessons not so she would learn to play the piano but so that she would cease to be cowed by her own fear of failure and learn to do something creative with it instead.

Indeed, in the safety of a one-to-one situation she might even learn that failure could be her friend. We do learn from our mistakes, constantly. Not because they engender fear but because, properly handled, they help us focus our minds in a new or different direction or encourage us to just plain buck up our ideas. In a recently published book, Emotional Intelligence, which has apparently taken America by storm, psychologist Daniel Goleman, argues for what he calls the development of EQ (emotional intelligence) rather than IQ.

Goleman stresses the importance, in terms of intellectual success, of social intelligence: communication, co-operation, speaking one's mind, listening. Learning to handle criticism seems an obvious follow on from such a list (the result, perhaps, of "speaking one's mind" and "listening" happening to two people in the same place at the same time). It doesn't take much imagination to realise how the lack of such skills could impact disastrously on a person's ability to do everything from flying a plane to policing our streets and teaching our children.

For the majority of children, and certainly for the more sensitive and conscientious who may already be almost too ready to listen, coming to terms with a statement of their "development needs", couched exclusively in positive terms, will be an essential confidence-building step towards such "social intelligence". But there are others whom we all know (some of us feed and clothe them) who will only hear what is said if the criticism is plain, direct and mildly shocking to them.

Such negative statements are, for them, the only thing which will produce a positive outcome. "Development needs" will simply wash over such children's heads. Children aren't all the same: that's both one of the joys and one of the challenges of being a parent and, presumably, a teacher.

So, my verdict on the 5-14 report forms? "Must do better." Oh sorry, too negative. "Must develop a more robust attitude to matters concerning the child's personal development."

Now is that a sufficiently positive goal?

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