School reports: time to change

The reports that many parents get on their children veer from the blandly formal to the over-optimistic. Parents have to play detective to guess what is really going on in class. By Diana Hinds
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When my children come home from school today brandishing their annual reports in brown envelopes, it is unlikely that these single sheets of A4 will tell me very much I didn't already know. I will be reminded, probably, that my five-year-old knows her "o'clocks"; her numbers up to 20; and is using her phonics to sound out simple words. My seven-year- old's report will include SATs results - an enigmatic series of numbers, which may bear some relation to national averages, but which will tell me nothing about how he's doing relative to his own year-group at school.

As this is the last day of term, there'll be no chance for me to follow up with the teachers anything that I am unclear, or concerned, about. I will stick the reports away in a drawer, and, by the time school starts again in September, they will be all-but forgotten, educational water under the bridge.

Thirty years ago, school reports, at least for secondary school pupils (primary school reports were not compulsory until 1992), would have been mainly test scores and class positions. While that approach was clearly inadequate, the swing to the more generalised - and often bland - reporting of children's motivation, attitude, and the work they have covered, still leaves many parents feeling dissatisfied.

"Schools are working hard, producing reports and seeing parents, but what they are providing is, in general, not very useful," says Sally Power, at London University's Institute of Education, co-author of a research study published last year, Could Do Better: school reports and parents' evenings. "There is a mismatch," she says, "between schools reporting what children have done, and parents' desire to be more involved in their learning."

The secondary schools in the study (a mixed sample of 183), produced at least one written report a year, usually at the end of the summer term, and one or more parents' evenings during the year. But grammar schools reported more frequently than comprehensives and secondary moderns, and inner-city schools less frequently than those in rural or suburban areas.

More than one third of the schools used computer statement banks to build reports - a labour-saving method, increasingly popular with schools, where teachers select computerised statements which come closest to describing an individual pupil. Parents in the study said they found these impersonal, but also criticised hand-written, unstructured reports as bland and as over-generalised.

They were concerned that reports were too positive, and failed to mention, or concealed, areas of weakness. Most parents also wanted more comparative information on how their children were performing relative to other pupils, and some were confused by national curriculum levels and assessments.

John Bastiani, specialist in home-school relations, believes written reports are only meaningful to parents if they form part of a continuous, two-way process of dialogue between parents and teachers - or better still, a three-way process that involves children too.

Research he undertook in 1994 with Warwickshire parents identified three chief areas in reporting where parents felt they were not getting the information they wanted from schools. Parents wanted, firstly, a more rounded and personal picture of their child, not focused exclusively on academic achievement. They wanted to make reasonable comparisons with other children in the class, in terms of work development, rather than crude scores or ratings. In addition, crucially, they wanted to know how to help in areas where their children were having difficulties.

Under the Scottish education system, reports are required to suggest ways in which parents can help their children. English school reports seldom involve parents in this way, and, because they are generally issued near the end of the summer term, looking back at what a child has, or has not, done over the year, it is too late for parents, in conjunction with the school, to do very much to help.

A survey of primary and secondary reporting by Ofsted - the Office for Standards in Education - in 1995 noted only a minority of reports made it clear what pupils needed to do to improve. It also found many reports were "unduly positive and fail to make constructive criticism... giving the impression that attainment is much better than it is."

Confronted with this kind of over-positive report-speak, parents - those that can - have to undertake a kind of detective scrutiny, reading between the lines for the real criticisms that the reports fail to spell out. One mother told me that she had had to examine her five-year-old's rather glowing report extremely closely to realise that he had actually not learnt to read.

If teachers find it hard to convey negative messages in written reports, they find it even more difficult when face-to-face with parents, in a five-minute parents' evening slot. Parents of primary school children generally have more access to teachers, if they want it, at the beginning and end of the school day, but often feel more cut-off once their children are at secondary school.

But a crowded parents' evening, in which teachers are under pressure and working against the clock, and where there is often little or no privacy, fails to provide the kind of information and contact many parents really want.

A recent study of secondary school parents' evenings - for the Economic and Social Research Council, by Barbara Walker and Maggie MacLure - found parents often struggle to get over their own views on these occasions. Consultations tend to be controlled and dominated by teachers, who diagnose pupils' strengths and weaknesses, and then expect parents to agree.

So how are parents and schools to find better ways of reporting? More frequent reports - say, two or three parents' evenings a year, and a detailed written report in January as well as the year-end summative report - might help. But Sally Power argues it's more to do with "effecting a culture change, than simply reporting more often, so schools recognise parents can be a help, rather than an interference".

Schools could begin by reviewing their reporting arrangements with parents, and the new home-school agreements, legally required from September, present an ideal opportunity for this kind of discussion. Some schools have already taken a lead here. Rush Common Primary School in Abingdon (see panel, right), for instance, runs highly successful "parent surgeries" in place of conventional parents' evenings.

At secondary level, Tanbridge House School in west Sussex has evolved detailed systems of monitoring pupil performance across the curriculum term-by-term: if a pupil is scoring low grades for effort, Lesley Cooke, head of house, can immediately contact the parents, and together with the pupil, discuss ways of tackling the problem. "This system means I can give parents a detailed, whole picture of how their child is doing across all subjects, and they are grateful for it," she says. "I can spot quickly when things aren't going well, and help students and parents find specific ways to in which they can make improvements."

`Could Do Better', pounds 6.75 (incl. p&p) from the Research and Information on State Education Trust (RISE), 54 Broadwalk, South Woodford, London E18 2DW. `Secondary School Parents' Evenings: a qualitative study' by Barbara Walker and Maggie MacLure, from CARE, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ.