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Why we accentuate the positive

The phone rings. A friend flutters at the end of the line. Yes, she'd love to come and stay, and guess what? One of her ex-pupils has moved to our area and she'd really like to see his family - they'd become friends. Unlike me, Georgia doesn't believe in professional distance. That's probably because she's a nicer person.

Georgia leaves for the visit bearing vocation and chocolate but returns ashen-faced. After the initial pleasantries, her pupil had wandered off, not very interested. The parent had waved her son's report from his new school. "Isn't it marvellous?" she'd enthused, "you'd think he was a different child."

Georgia read through the report with the advantage of the professional Internet that links like minds. She could crack the code that translates "Jason is on the way to becoming a motivated reader" to "Jason will improve when he actually starts to read".

Bereft of professional support and as a guest in the parent's house, Georgia could only agree, weakly. A new child was portrayed. The parent was happy, convinced she'd found a better school.

But Georgia knew the pupil had weaknesses, which required recognition and support. So did the parent. So did the new teacher, who for her own reasons had chosen to collude with the parents in Jason's metamorphosis.

Georgia's story illustrates some of the conundrums in report-writing in the primary school. Teachers are influenced by the powerful strategy of giving a pupil an identity as a "doer", a reader, a mathematician, an artist. This permeates their pedagogy, but the audience for this philosophy is the child.

Reports are written for parents and we don't always fulfill their expectations. Confusion over who, and what, the report is for prompted one parent to come to me in tears. How could I possibly include her child's reading score when it was so low? He'd been looking forward to the report, which the parent had decided would give him a boost and she'd had to tell him he hadn't done as well as next door. The family was in mourning, and it was my fault.

Secondary teachers report on progress in particular subject areas. This is far more objective. Primary teachers report on the whole child as a learner. This involves the identity of the child and the whole family.It can become a very personal issue, which may be too intense for individual teachers to bear.

Given the anxiety created about failing schools and teaching standards, a report can be reassuring. The child is doing well, so the school must be good. Teacher and family can approve of each other.

The Office for Standards in Education claims that: "Many reports are unduly positive and fail to make constructive criticism. Such reports give the impression that attainment is much better than it is."

Georgia is one teacher who knows why.

Linda Pagett teaches in the West Country

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