Teachers, you could try harder

School reports used to be blunt and to the point. Now teachers get quite carried away in useless flowery blandness, writes Hilary Wilce
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The Independent Online
Am I the only parent in the country who has been left unenlightened by my child's end-of-year school report? In 57 tightly packed lines, I learn my eight- year-old daughter uses map co-ordinates accurately; can perform complex physical education sequences; shows enjoyment of the practical side of technology; and is applying knowledge of common word patterns more confidently to her written work.

She has a positive approach to maths, has shown interest in history, made a good start on the recorder and is developing a more confident and positive approach when experimenting with new materials in art.

A huge amount of work has gone into this detailed summary of her achievements, and I bunch and stretch my fingers as I read it, in sympathy with the poor class teacher who had to fill in 32 such forms - 1,842 lines of cramped handwriting.

But is this effort really worth it? I certainly don't feel, after I've read my daughter's report through several times, that I have any real fix on how she's doing. OK, so she can use map co-ordinates, but does this make her an eight-year-old geographical genius, or a real plodder in the locational analysis department? At what age is it normal for children to use map co-ordinates? Six? Sixteen? I have no idea.

Teachers seem to forget that we parents are primitive people. Our grasp of the grammar and content of national curriculum-ese is so non-existent that these careful descriptions of educational achievements are meaningless without explanatory context.

My daughter likes to claim that she's "one of the best" in the class at maths, but nothing in her report suggests this. Is she really doing as well as she thinks? Or is it merely wishful thinking from a child with such a rich imagination and firm delivery of untruths that she once convinced the family for weeks that her class had a pet adder called Ralph who lived in a blue tank in the quiet corner and ate spiders that the class found for him under the computer table?

And what about her spelling? It's absolutely ghastly, but is this normal for an eight-year-old? And if not, just how bad is it? Her report says, enigmatically, that she has made steady progress. But from where to where? A snail crawling an inch along the road from Land's End to John O'Groats is making progress, but it's not exactly something to write home about.

Questions like these can be raised at parent-teacher meetings, but not everyone gets to such meetings, and anyway reports are the only things written down in black and white for parents to absorb at their leisure.

Maybe that's exactly why they're so circumspect and non-committal. A world away from the comprehensible one-worders - excellent, good, poor - of a generation ago. A teacher friend says it's all done to formula these days - a positive tone, and half-a-dozen lines under every subject heading - and it certainly seems that way since primary school reports gathered from different parts of the country show a surprising unanimity of blandness.

In Sussex, an eight-year-old is "beginning to listen to class discussions and to make more mature judgements about his work". In the West Country, a 10-year-old girl is "happy and outgoing and works positively with good effect on her achievements". A nine-year-old Bedfordshire boy has "an excellent grasp of the bonding of molecules in solids, liquids and gases".

Thesauruses across the country must be lying open at the feel-good words - positive, sensitive, attentive, responsive - while you can almost see teachers burning the midnight oil as they painstakingly transcribe ticked- off national curriculum goals into the space provided: Uh, John Doe, mathematics ... let's see ... (runs finger vertically down name list, then horizontally along to sub-section, shape and space). Writes laboriously: "John is gradually mastering right angles and fractions of a turn and is using the associated language."

Yet John's parents almost certainly don't care tuppence about John's relationship with fractions of a turn. What they want are much simpler assessments, couched in plain old English. Is our John doing well? How's he doing in the class? Is he doing the best that you, his teacher, think he's capable of? And - very important, this - if not, where does he need to pull his socks up?

My older two children, in other schools, both brought home reports that did not stint on the latter. In English my daughter's "lackadaisicalness and lack of thoroughness are her undoing ... As for spelling, there should be no stigma involved in using a dictionary..." Her brother, while turning in what we had considered an acceptable 70 per cent physics exam score, was rapped on the knuckles for failing to compete with those students doing better than him. "He has," wrote his teacher sternly, "the ability to do this."

Significantly, the only note of criticism that crept into my daughter's primary school report came from her own self-assessment - "I think I must try harder at reading," she wrote. "I sometimes get the words wrong."

Of course, children need lashings of praise and encouragement, but hand- in-hand with this must always go high standards and expectations because the one without the other is meaningless.

So why don't primary school reports junk both the bland niceties and the endless detail in favour of a broader picture, sharpened by a few apposite comments? Use checklists. Tell us, quite simply, if our children's performance in any field is poor/satisfactory/good; and if their level of effort merits an A, B or C. Sum up their progress and pitfalls in a few apposite paragraphs. And make everyone - parents and teachers alike - much happier in the process.