School reports: There’s An App For That!

In England, primary school students get reports made up of statements like the following:

She uses descriptive and figurative language successfully.
She is able to use more than one strategy in order to read unfamiliar words, including phonic and contextual knowledge.
She uses a range of strategies to establish meaning.
Her writing conveys meaning in both narrative and non-narrative form.

To me this sounds demented — what the hell is ‘phonic and contextual knowledge’? How many normal people understand the meaning of ‘descriptive and figurative language’?

I was brought up in the golden age of terse, handwritten reports, with their heartfelt insights (“continues to disappoint”) and finely-wrought aperçus (“progress generally acceptable”). The new-fangled language is verbose, detailed and weirdly specific. The tone of voice is personal… but ominously authoritarian: the voice of God, if God was a Grade 7 civil servant.

As a parent governor at a primary school in south London, I asked some teachers to explain. It turns out that primary school reports must consist of statements that reflect individual guidelines of the National Curriculum and various other ‘strategies’.

Teachers, too busy to write individual statements for every child, resort to ‘statement banks’: prefab collections for each subject and level. Enterprising educationalists have gone a step further, sharing statement banks online – here’s a snippet from a collection for Reception pupils from the Times Educational Supplement website:


Personal, Emotional Development

Able
X is very caring and will often initiate play with other children and will look after a classmate who is feeling left out or poorly. X is aware of how to behave within the classroom and generally can be relied on to behave well. She takes responsibility for her own actions and she recognises the consequences of her actions on others. X can concentrate for extended periods of time on topics of her choosing, she needs to develop this further when working on set tasks as she is often eager to rush and wants to choose her own task.

Less Able
X shows an interest in classroom activities and participates well with self chosen activities. X can dress themselves independently but may sometimes need help when it come to their jumper or t-shirt. She can work well with her friends in class and is building on these relationships through play and talking. X can separate from her mum in the morning and feels confident when sitting with or near her friends at the beginning of the day.

The teacher who shared this work observes that the statements ‘can possibly be used as they are’, by which I assume they mean you could adapt statements for each child, just by changing X to the child’s name.

School report comment bank for sale on eBay

As seen on eBay: your child's assessment

I also found school report statements for sale on eBay (see right). Their slogan: ‘A comment for every child!’

Teacher-techies have gone a step further and built applications to automate report writing.

With these you don’t even have to copy and paste: simply feed student data into one end of the sausage machine, and out the other end come ready-to-print ‘personalised’ statements.

One of the most popular is The Report King. This application produces carefully randomised assessments (‘No two reports are the same’) conforming diligently to the rules of the National Curriculum, Primary National Strategies, APP materials and the QCA schemes of work.

Here are some statements I produced in about 20 seconds — all I had to do was select a subject and level:

Semi-automatic report writing

Semi-automatic report writing

Communication, language and literacy

Language for communication and thinking Sam shares his news, elaborating on key events when prompted, and takes turns during paired discussion. He shows a better ability to remember detail from stories and rhymes shared in class, and uses voices for different characters during drama activities.

Reading Sam can explain which parts of a story he liked and enjoys more difficult books. He understands that non-fiction books can be used to answer questions and he reads an increasing number of words by sight.

Writing Sam makes some plausible attempts at writing unfamiliar words and he can write recognisable letters with a pencil. He appreciates that writing is a way of sharing a thought with someone else and he is becoming more confident when copying from the whiteboard.

Likewise, Report Assistant produces ‘professional sounding, individualized report cards in the shortest possible time’, which ‘can be tailored to suit individual students’.

Michael Gove is Watching You

Michael Gove is Watching You

All this automated assessment would be splendid — if we were happy to live in a world where authority meant more than authenticity. There is, after all, something a tiny bit tempting about the nationalisation of language as imagined by Kafka and Orwell and Atwood.

In reality, I think this is… bollocks.

Communication between teachers and parents is important. It should be truthful and accurate. Teachers should not copy and paste — then tell their students not to do the same. The argument that school reports don’t matter — because they’re written in a way that means parents either don’t read or don’t understand them — is ingeniously self-fulfilling, but it doesn’t really help. Assessment and reporting should be done properly, even if that’s a pain.

Assessment statements like those quoted above are supposed to be for parents, and yet they sound like they’re written for the bureaucrats who invented them. Most parents don’t understand educational jargon — and the specificity of the statements falsely implies an accuracy that isn’t possible. How can any teacher forced to write dozens of reports possibly go into such detail with any accuracy? Parents who actually bother to read school reports might naively think that teachers are making genuine, personal, individual statements about their child — which, of course, is a deception.

Maybe, in this reputedly litigious age, teachers are actually scared of saying anything individual and understandable?

Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education

Our Glorious Leader

The response to these problems seems either defeatist, ‘we’re just too busy… it’s always been like that’, or defensive, ‘we have far bigger things to worry about’. Cynics suggest that school reports are inherently useless, so we shouldn’t waste time trying to improve them: a bit rubbish, but really not all that important.

But, but, but… Communication is at the heart of learning (isn’t it?) and schools are setting a bad example. There are, of course, many good teachers who are bad at documentation, or who just do their job and accept the existing guidelines for school reports, or manage to get around them — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rock the boat. If the government is committed to accurate assessment and reporting in schools, they need to legislate for something different from the mess we have now.

The Department for Education (its third rebranding in the last decade) has come up with something called Assessing Pupils’ Progress, but resources for this and other assessment guidelines are difficult to fathom and hard to find. The National Strategies website is a nightmare to navigate (as several teachers have commented). For parents like me who want to find out how school reports work, there’s absolutely sweet FA.

Like most workers politicians refer to as being on the front line (as opposed to back-room bureaucrats) teachers are dogged by documentation. As well as actually having to teach, teachers are now expected to document their class work in detail while they’re working: ‘observing and recording evidence’, to ‘integrate the assessment of pupil’s progress into their teaching’.

This is all the more reason to make school reports more pragmatic: what is their purpose? who are they for? Recent plans to abolish quangos such as QCDA may offer a chance to do something better. In the end, maybe all the Department for Education needs to do is ask parents what they want.

After all, school reports are for parents — aren’t they?

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About Sam Dutton

I am a Developer Advocate for Google Chrome. I grew up in rural South Australia, went to university in Sydney, and have lived since 1986 in London, England. Twitter: @SW12
This entry was posted in Education, OFSTED, Primary schools, QCDA, School and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to School reports: There’s An App For That!

  1. Shaun Turner says:

    Hi!

    Great post!

    As a Parent Governor myself I do find some of the statements I read just bizarre nuspeak!

    I volunteer in another primary school and I see some of the requirement and characterisations that are “to be attained” and they are just frightening.

    I think perhaps over the past 10 years we have seen a drive towards a more refined method of social engineering which this current lot seems not so inclined to dismantle. Back in the day (when I was at school) yes, parents and teachers chatted, stuff was written down but it was more about the child than the league table, more about the individual than the corporate image.

    As you say, it needs to be simplified and perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed on the ability of the teacher to accurately reflect on, report on and manage the development of the child outside of what is currently a very restrictive set of state-driven statements of requirement. Parents that I have spoken to have problems understanding what the reports say, and we are talking about Solicitors, Directors and Accountants!

    Meh.

    • Sam Dutton says:

      Thanks for your comment Shaun — agree with it all!

    • Perhaps you need to broaden your “teacher pool” somewhat Sam. As a very busy single mother and full time Specialist teacher I often resort to using such websites of prescribed lists to stimulate my own thought processes. Life does not stop simply because I have 250+ personalised comments to write. Unlike the average employee I don’t get time during my working day to complete these comments – I have to juggle them around lessons, yard duties, supervising and training my school choir, doctors appointments, meetings, dance classes, piano lessons, cooking dinner, cleaning my house etc etc. Manage my time better you say – sure thing I’ll just stop marking the several hundred pieces I have to mark or the couple hundred videos I need to review in order to individually grade my students abilities. Each child is unique in ability, behaviour, performance and attitude; and each child is as equally important to me as the next. I don’t like to rush my judgements and I like to tailor my lessons to cater for as many individual needs as I can, but this takes time. Unlike the average office worker I don’t get to sit behind a desk and devise all this then put it into action, no I spend hours and hours after hours or at home at night because during the day I must deliver these lessons. In addition to being role model, care giver, social worker, medic, in many cases parent and confident – just a few of the many different “hats” I wear on a daily basis. To top this off I am given tight deadlines, strict word counts, educational and curriculum language and mandated formats that I MUST adhere to when composing my reports. Have you heard of the “sandwich technique” for writing comments? Gone are the days when I could straight forwardly inform a parent that their child is ill-mannered and lacks respect. No longer can I say your child needs to sit still and focus. Today it is all Johnny is a vibrant child who enjoys sharing his ideas with others when really Johnny doesn’t know how to sit still and has no respect for adults. In today’s society though that too is the “teachers” fault as more and more responsibility for raising children is dumped on the educator – what ever happened to parents educating their children with the basics of social etiquette? However that is another argument, back to the point at hand. That being I’d like to see you sit down in your personal time and spend the energy you did writing and most likely minimal research of this article to write 250+ personalised individual comments of a minimum of 650 characters in three weeks. Outside of and top of your everyday life – oh and I almost forgot they have to be different to last semester and last years comments, or the year before that as I live and work in a small community and heaven forbid I use the same comments on Johnny’s report card that I used on his brother Billy’s two years ago! My daughter has just had a week off with bronchitis, I’ve got the flu and am showing signs of bronchitis myself attend physio several times a week to continue my great progress from massive ankle surgery where I almost lost use of my foot from just misjudging as I went down a step. I have a story to read, a dishwasher to load and need to call my mother to make sure she’s ok in her hospital bed where she just got two new knees, but it’s ok. Somewhere after all that if I am not too tired I will pull out my notes and work samples, videos and photos in an attempt to write a couple more unique and individually tailored comments before my brain shuts down and my eyes begin to droop. Then just to give parents like yourself something to whinge about, I might look at and possible use some of my prewritten and prescribed comment bank statements to make sure I keep my language inside mandated outlines so I don’t have to redo it all next week because my boss doesn’t approve (yes teachers get edited too). Not to mention the sheer fact that I need my job and don’t want to give them any reason to not renew my contract at the end of the year because I didn’t play by the rules. Just because I like to use short cuts that make my life easier does not mean I care any less or that my students do not matter to me and I resent the insinuation that they do – please feel free anytime to walk a day in my shoes!

      • PS – just writing this post can put my career in jepardy due to strict “”social media guidelines” I must adhere too. If you thought the rules governing teachers in 2011 where tight you should see them today :/

  2. Duncan says:

    Hi Sam,

    Maybe you could add http://www.reportcommentbank.co.uk – there are over 35,000 comments here and you just point and click. Thanks !!

  3. Njaal Borch says:

    Wow, that is unreal! In Norway we still do physical meetings with the teachers in primary school, about half an hour for each child, twice a year. The child is welcome too, and feedback goes both ways. Seems preferable to a generated piece of official sounding nothing!

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