Reports have no place in the communication age

8th April 2016 at 01:00
At a time when teachers routinely speak to parents via email, the school report seems not only antiquated but an ineffective way to deliver feedback on progress

“Kinsey with a deafening report, does it…” So sang Noël Coward in his parody of the Cole Porter classic Let’s Do It.

As a prep school boy in the early 2000s, the termly missives home often proved to be a similarly startling report. After weeks of evasions, half-truths and bald-faced lies, the genuine picture was conveyed to my parents with devastating honesty. “Edward has many talents and interests at this establishment,” wrote one bitter cynic. “Unfortunately, mathematics is not one of them.”

This dry wit, too, was the hallmark of the old school report. I am sure we all have memories of such withering remarks as, “The improvement in his handwriting has revealed his inability to spell,” and “Tom has three speeds – slow, slower and stop.” A former colleague once quoted a noteworthy example from early in his career: “John has successfully brought his book to every lesson. When he has saved up for a pen, who knows what he might achieve.” One friend of mine at secondary school received just six words for English. “Shoots from hip. Often hits foot.” Alas, such acerbic exchanges are no longer de rigueur.

Reports are considered so integral to schooling in the public consciousness that it seems hard to conceive of a time without them, in the past or the future. When did they become such an ingrained part of the system? An American example from 1825 resembles a banknote and reads, “This certifies that x, by punctual attendance, diligence and good behaviour, merits the approbation of her Friends and Instructors.” Doubtless similar systems existed in the UK in previous centuries, too.

For the oldest public schools, a pupil would be delivered to the institution a boy and emerge years later as a man, with seldom parental interaction in between. A report card must have been just that – a “report”, apprising parents of their child’s position at school, as military dispatches might deliver news of the latest battle in the war. Had he or she crossed the Rubicon of the subjunctive mood? Or had they yet to master the second declension?

Nowadays, the picture is very different. Parental contact is regular, through individual subject teachers and schools’ middle and senior management. The advent of email means that many modern teachers answer queries from home on a daily basis, and parents are free to make any inquiries concerning their offspring, from academic performance to social matters. Perhaps reports have become superfluous. Should we continue to provide them simply because they are expected?

A question of timing

Certainly, the production of reports gives rise to numerous problems for teachers. If they are all written at the end of term, a frantic week ensues where feedback must be composed for hundreds of students, and day-to-day teaching can suffer. If spread out across the term, they inevitably fall at the wrong times, with some pupils requiring them too soon to judge their performance properly, and others receiving them too late for them to be useful.

Timing is not the only issue. Wording reports is also a perilous business, as one balances the need for encouragement and recognition of success with having to give honest criticism and point out areas for improvement. A pointed remark could cause offence, but an overly bland report runs the greater risk of failing to draw a parent’s attention to a crucial issue. Then of course, there are lengthy procedures for correcting grammatical errors and collating reports before they can go out to parents – by which point, the information in them may be out of date or no longer correct. At my first teaching post, where reports were released electronically, only around half of parents read them. After so much effort, it was disheartening.

Face-to-face contact is key

I would support the abolition of school reports in favour of parents’ evenings, which I usually enjoy. At the very least, they are efficient and closely targeted. When talking to the mother of a particularly brilliant boy recently, it took seconds to state, “Just as I said at the school gate the other day, he’s doing splendidly – industrious work and a strong grasp of Latin. Absolutely delighted.” In other cases, where pupils had not fared so well, I was able to address parents’ specific concerns and give precise suggestions on how their children might improve.

It is important that form tutors and heads of year gain an overall picture of students’ progress. Meetings about pupil development are constructive and should continue. I would, however, suggest that in the age of electronic communication and almost continuous parental involvement, school reports themselves no longer serve any useful purpose. To paraphrase Mr Coward, let’s not do it, please.

Ed Clarke is head of classics at Highfield School, Hampshire, and author of Variatio: a scholarship Latin course

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