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
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.
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.
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:
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’.
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?
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?