Linda Jones: My daughters' school reports are meaningless drivel

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The Independent Online

Sometime in the early Eighties, heading home from school, I was a quivering wreck. My geography teacher had called me "erratic" in my report.

Ashamed by such an accurate appraisal of my approach to most things in life, I was going to pretend I'd lost the report – if, of course, my parents remembered it was due in the first place. It was stressing me out, big time.

A generation on, and my twin daughters will face no such fear. Judging by the missives they came home with at the end of last term, school reports have morphed into something so bland and meaningless, my daughters will always be happy to plonk them in front of me. That's the good news. The bad news is that none of us will be able to make head or tail of what they say.

The twins are in Year Three. I've just been presented with pretty much identical reports – despite the fact that the girls are in different classes.

There's not much that makes sense to me. Neither report has anything negative, critical or constructive to say. Granted, there are some very kind words at the start of each, lovely comments that make my heart swell with pride. But I'm genuinely baffled by what follows.

For example, it says: "Maths: Using and applying: Melissa is beginning to try different approaches and to find ways of overcoming difficulties that arise when she is solving problems. She discusses her work using mathematical language and represents it using symbols and simple diagrams. She is beginning to discuss her mathematical work and is beginning to explain her thinking."

No disrespect, but what else would she be doing in maths, exactly? I don't understand what anyone thinks can be gleaned from this gobbledegook. The focus is on what the children have done, not how they've got on, where they need help or have excelled, or even what they've enjoyed.

At parents' evening, in the face of my awkwardness, a teacher patiently explained it was all to do with "ticking boxes." If she ticked certain boxes about targets met, then pre-set phrases would pop into the report... and that was it.

How nice. What a brilliant labour-saving device. But is anyone really going to be won over by a "ticking boxes" demonstration? Suddenly an approach to the Plain English Campaign seems appealing.

Where in these boxes would one fit someone who was struggling? Or a particularly bright or gifted pupil? What if they had the natural ability to dazzle with a phenomenal ability – like, say, little Connie, wowing the nation with her singing on Britain's Got Talent? By these measures, her report could say: "Connie is recognising sounds and using her voice to develop different rhythms in time with the music." Or, as a friend suggested: "If your child is reading Proust you'll still get something like, 'Child X can recognise her letters and understands the relationship between letters and sounds.'"

My reluctance to accept this nonsense has nothing to do with the fine teaching staff at my daughters' school. They've always been approachable and good-humoured when I ask how my girls are getting on. I also understand that reports must mean a pile of mind-numbing admin amid the million other things they have to do in a day.

But at a time when letters home are filled with "mission statements" about a "partnership" between school and home, I reluctantly wonder how much these reports really keep the school's part of the bargain. Parents' evening is always pleasant and mildly illuminating, but I want to know more – not just that the kids are "using mathematical language" in maths.

We were asked to comment on the reports. A friend turned the tables and wrote: "I am struggling to know if this report is about my daughter. The best thing I can say is it looks very neat."

I contented myself with saying that I was "disappointed", since harsh criticism would just be shooting the messenger. But I must admit to being a bit more miffed than that. Surely teachers and heads must find this whole exercise as unsatisfying as parents. What on Earth do they have to gain from being slated over this system – as was inevitable?

I'm assured that next year there may be a different approach, one combining the requirements of meeting curriculum targets with more individual comment. Great stuff. The penny has dropped.

In the interests of balance, I've been racking my brains to think of a plus-side to these characterless documents. And I've managed it: they could sound the death knell for the "celebrity report". Phew! Television viewers and Sunday supplement readers can breathe a sigh of relief.

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