The verdict: C minus for individualism

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The Independent Online

My son received his school report the other day, a familiar mixture of kind words and gently coded exhortation rendered memorable by only one detail - that here and there he turned into an entirely different boy.

My son received his school report the other day, a familiar mixture of kind words and gently coded exhortation rendered memorable by only one detail - that here and there he turned into an entirely different boy.

Not just one, either, but two. I've occasionally flirted with the idea of multiple personality disorder when faced with his sudden mood changes, but I don't think the appearance of three different forenames in his report confirmed this fanciful diagnosis. They suggested, instead, that a bug had got into the system - and that the software used to produce this impressively detailed document had accidentally created a pupil cocktail, one part blood of my blood, a twist of the boy in spectacles and a dash of the quiet one down the front.

I don't know for certain that his report was created using proprietary software, but I would be very surprised if the computer hadn't done quite a lot more than typeset the text. It must be so tempting, after all. Take the publicity for Zap Report!, a typical report-writing programme: "Gone are the days of reports which read as if they had been written by a robot," it boasts, "and in which you cannot, as a parent, find anything resembling your child!" (details such as their Christian names, I guess).

Zap then offers you a winning list of bullet points: "makes report-writing almost enjoyable! * handles the whole operation from input to laser-printed reports! * allows you to write a truly individualised report if you wish, but... * gives you instant access to a huge statement bank whenever you need it!" I love the last pair particularly; the possibility that teachers might hand-craft their phrases is briefly acknowledged but then exuberantly swept aside by that final exclamation mark (which I can't help hearing as: "Oh, my God! Tesco closes in 20 minutes!")

The Blue Hills Software Company ("for teachers with no time to waste") gives helpful samples to prospective customers. Click "Boy average" on the Art drop-down menu, for example, and you get: "is producing drawings, paintings and 3D work that show increasing accuracy and attention to detail. He is able to reflect on and adapt his work, identifying ways in which it can be developed and improved." "Boy below average" brings up a subtle variation: "shows a developing ability to represent what he sees or imagines, through drawing, painting or 3D work. He now needs to give more attention to the accuracy and detail of his art work."

Another website notes that well-written programmes will feature " 'intelligence' regarding use of pronouns, so girls will be referred to as 'she', and boys as 'he' ". Well, quite. It might be disconcerting to find that Josephine was progressing well in maths, but that "he must work harder on learning his number bonds".

The problem here is that of finding a universal joint that connects the parents' experience (their child as unique amalgam of charming quirks, nascent talent and specialised needs) with that of the teachers (yet another av. boy). You would, I think, be more likely to develop a convenient and painless way to mate an elephant with a chihuahua. For parents, every nuance is scrutinised with a rabbinical devotion: what does "developing" mean, exactly? For teachers, the words may be merely a means to an end - the end of a tedious and, to be honest, quixotic task.

Parents want a subtly coloured educational portrait; teachers have a paint-by-numbers kit with which to produce it. I feel a certain sympathy with them, but if they can save their precious time this way, perhaps parents can be let in on the act, too. Leave the vaporous statements in the bank and let us talk about the basic shorthand that prompted their withdrawal in the first place. Until then, parents are bound to come away thinking, "Could try harder."

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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