Computers spell an end to wit

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Hundreds of schools are using new software which can write reports by itself. The computer uses the pupil's school record to match what he or she has done - and how well - with standard remarks, suitable for parental consumption, writes Fran Abrams.

While the process can save teachers up to 100 hours' work every year, it could also end the acerbic humour which has characterised the best reports.

Although schools can key in their own range of comments, or choose from a list provided by the manufacturers, the system's fans admit it can take the fun out of the process.

The report that declared film director Michael Winner was "abominably rude" and "movie mad" would be more likely to record in future that the boy was "able to use co-ordinates in the first quadrant", and that he had "reached national-curriculum level five in mathematics."

The staffroom wit who once asked of a persistent truant: "Tracey ... How is Tracey?" would, under this system, be more likely to send home a report recording that the young miscreant had been "encouraged to improve and use her oral skills in different ways."

Several thousand schools are believed now to be using computerised comment-banks to write pupils' reports. Several hundred have taken up the fully-automatic option, available only in the past year.

The system has impressed some inspectors, but a report out today criticises it for often failing to report pupils' weaknesses, or set targets. "Many computer-generated reports were of indifferent quality ... they were often bland, with too few items in the bank for reporting to go beyond unhelpful generalisation," the Ofsted report said.

One of the main producers of the software is Sims, the leading provider of management information systems to schools. Through local authorities it has licensed 20,000 schools to use the equipment but believes the number actually doing so is smaller.

Hugh Carr-Archer, chairman of Sims, said while the programme took individuality out of report-writing, it eliminated errors. Teachers could write their own comments in if they wished, he said.

"I take the point about humanity. But all the mythology about reports and the wonderful things teachers said needs to be balanced by the blooming awful reports that there were," he added.