Log on to the future of reports

Revolutionary software is spelling the end for the traditional hand-written, annual assessment, reveals Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Online

Much of the pain of writing school reports has been eased in the digital age, thanks to the speed of word processing programmes, and the ability to cut and paste recurring phrases. Now an online report-writing programme hopes to ease the process even further, claiming to save between six and 10 days per teacher per pupil report, while still allowing individual comment by teachers.

Developed as a web-based version of Blue Hills Software Company's Primary Report Writer, PRW Online offers inbuilt National Curriculum, QCA statements and a Comments bank - "Louis is achieving above the expected level" or "Claudia relates well to her peers" for example - on which to base the report.

Importantly though, the system - which can be used on both PC and Macs - also features an option which allows teachers to either provide their own personal remarks about pupils or edit the standard comments already provided.

Understandably, parents do not always feel comfortable with the notion of computerised report-writing. But the trend for teachers to replace hand-written term or annual reports with word-processed versions is already saving schools large amounts of time, says Dave Ruddlin, director of Blue Hills, which has also introduced an online version of its Foundation Stage Report Writer.

"It's taken two years to develop PRW Online and eight months to trial it, but we have ended up with a highly secure, encrypted programme that provides instant access without the need to load any software.

"Teachers find that it saves them time and produces a highly professional-looking report. The statement bank can be automatic or manual and there is no requirement for teachers to use it at all if they don't want to."

Just a month after its online debut, Blue Hill believes that web-based reporting will become the norm within a couple of years. "We offer online and telephone support, the programme is easy to use and it allows teachers to spend more time in the classroom," says Ruddlin. "What more could teachers want?"

There can be unfortunate mistakes with any report-writing software - one of the most common is a pupil's gender being incorrectly inputed so that nine-year-old Emily is referred to as "he" throughout a report.

Despite this, Geoff Broadbent, a former deputy headteacher and now director of online learning at educational software giant Granada Learning, believes that hand-written reports are becoming extinct.

A key feature of Granada's own approach to reports though, which now comprise part of the "Skills Factory" series of lesson planning and record-keeping, is customising.

"Too many of the statements being used in school reports are generic in nature and can end up looking exactly the same whether your child is in Year 2 or Year 6," says Broadbent.

"Our research suggests that many teachers prefer assessment-driven comments that actually mean something to parents, but fear upsetting anybody. We encourage users to input photos of pupils working or add pieces of their artwork rather than generic shots."

Although the next generation of Granada's Primary Complete software will be available online, Broadbent expects offline content to remain popular among the 5,000 schools which already use it.

"The DfES is very much giving the green light to online content at the moment, but in my experience, teachers usually like to experiment with CD-Roms on their laptops first."

According to Broadbent, we haven't yet reached the stage where the head of, say, Little Acorns Primary can rely on e-communications alone when it comes to notifying parents of a chickenpox epidemic or even mailing out pupil reports. "Many schools have had their e-mail systems donated by the local authority and they can be very slow and cumbersome. There is also the question of security and the issue of schools' internal culture," he adds.

"In my experience, eight out of 10 staffroom e-mails are printed out by the office before the staff meeting which is surely contrary to what the e-mail revolution is hoping to achieve."

For the future, text messaging of parents when a pupil is absent or has a collision in the playground is a distinct possibility, says Broadbent, while so-called e-portfolios for all pupils are just around the corner.

"Historically, schools were places that invited parents in to see what their children had done, but possibly not more than once or twice a term. In the future, we expect schools to be more proactive in creating web logs so that via a secure password, parents can actually see what's being achieved every day."

For more information, see www.bluehills.co.uk www.skillsfactory.com