School reports – how to really find out how your child is doing

Does this look familiar?

In English lessons this term 8ENGJH have worked on punctuation skills and the interpretation of excerpts from Romeo and Juliet. A series of challenging learning objectives was set for a combination of written and oral assessment within the KS3 learning framework for English.

Jimmy has demonstrated a good understanding of the topics covered, achieving Level 3 in each of the three Attainment Targets. He is generally on task, and, while he could contribute more in class plenary sessions, his attitude has generally been positive and appropriate.

If you have kids in school, you’ve probably noticed that many teachers’ reports are lifeless, opaque, and often don’t actually tell you anything useful.

Behaviour isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it’s ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’. Kids don’t learn stuff – they meet Attainment Targets. Teenage boys aren’t lazy – they are ‘regularly off-task’.

Modern teachers are very, very careful about what they write in reports. In fact, they are encouraged to use an obscure, jargon-laden style that uses a lot of words without saying too much. To make things worse, wordprocessing applications and tight deadlines encourage the use of cutting and pasting – to the point where many teachers just have three basic reports (good, bad and average) and tweak them slightly to suit each student. Probably half a dozen of Jimmy’s classmates received a report identical to his.

From your point of view as parent, this sort of report is either of limited use (it doesn’t tell you much) or actively dangerous (it disguises a real problem). But what can you do about it? In this post we’re going to look at how most schools’ report writing systems have got into this state, and how, as a parent, you can find out how your child is really progressing.

How has this happened?
The modern decline in the art of meaningful report writing is, paradoxically, the result of the increase in parent and pupil power. Thirty years ago, when teachers were authority figures who were unlikely to have their professional judgment questioned by parents (and likely to escape any sort of penalty if it was), they could more or less say what they liked. Of course, in many ways the ‘good old days’ were actually quite bad old days, but teachers could at least speak their minds.

Today, they work in an environment where kids know their rights and parents know them even better. Many parents are inclined to blame schools and teachers for their kids’ failings, and happy to complain about, sue or generally cause trouble for teachers if they don’t deliver the results they want.

Teachers know this, schools know it, teacher trainers know it and the Government knows it. Over the past decade or teachers have been under pressure to make reports less direct and meaningful, lest they be used as evidence in meetings, hearings or court cases. This doesn’t just happen at the level of the pupil: you only have to try reading an Ofsted school report to notice that the infection of back-covering blandness has spread higher than the staffroom.

But this isn’t the only problem. Teachers are more loaded with admin that at any point in the past, and have little time to make a good job of writing reports. As a result, many write ‘cut and paste’ reports, and are even encouraged to do so by senior managers. Like the example above, these typically consist of a paragraph outlining the work covered during the term, followed by a generic paragraph about the student’s behaviour and achievement. They tend not to tell you much.

What can you do about it?
Read your child’s reports but – unless they are from a very traditional independent school – take them with a grain of salt. If it is obvious all is well and your child is happy and on course, you probably don’t need to find out more. But if you’re worried that something is amiss, you have a number of options. Here are some tips:

  • However you approach your kids’ teachers, be friendly and supportive. You’re much more likely to get the information you want if you stress to teachers that you’re not out to have a go at them. You should be aware that teachers meet many parents who automatically blame them for every problem. Prove you’re not one of those and you’ll get much straighter opinions.
  • In general you’re more likely to get straight talk from old stagers in their forties and fifties than from younger staff.
  • Parents’ evenings are slightly more useful than reports, because you can ask direct questions. Teachers will still be on their guard, but most genuinely want your kids to do well and will try to be straightforward within the boundaries of what they feel they can say. If a teacher hedges, evades or seems to be using very diplomatic language, dig deeper. Often, a pupil’s problems in a subject are more than simply his fault or the teacher’s fault – they are a mixture of the two, and the teacher may be aware of that, so tread carefully.
  • You might think that phonecalls are a better, less formal way of chatting to your kids’ teachers, but you wouldn’t necessarily be right. Nearly all schools insist that teachers write a reasonably detailed record of each parental phone conversation and store it centrally. As such, teachers will still be on their guard over the phone, as well as annoyed that they are going to have to waste ten minutes writing a report on what’s been said. That shouldn’t stop you calling if you feel it’s important, but teachers really dislike ‘phone pests’.
  • Ask for a meeting. If you have a serious problem, this can be an option – but often, like phonecalls and parents’ evenings, meetings generate more heat than light. If teachers feel a meeting is going to be hostile, they can ask their line managers to come in and help them. Again, everything has to be recorded and written up – taking up more teacher time that could be spent doing useful work with your kids.
  • Collar them. Teachers really, really hate this, but it can work – especially if you’re known as a reasonable, friendly parent (if you’re not reasonable and friendly the whole staffroom will know within 24 hours and your chances of finding out anything from anyone will be much reduced). Pull them aside at the end of the school day or at a school event and have the briefest of chats. If it looks serious, the teacher will probably request a call or meeting (see above), but you might learn something useful on the spot. Never ask teachers to talk about your child if you run into them in Tesco or the pub – say hello and be friendly by all means, but start talking shop and your photo will be on the staffroom dartboard for weeks.

121 Home Tutors is a Manchester-based tutoring agency, covering most major subjects and all ages from primary to GCSE, A-Level and beyond. If you’d like to hire a tutor for your child, or you’d just like some advice on teaching in general, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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