End Of Year Reports Are Not Good Enough

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Are report programmes making a fool out of teachers?

May half-term is National Copy and Paste week for many teachers. This is the time of year when teachers everywhere ‘write’ reports using formulaic phrases unashamedly nicked from some reporting software that promises ‘solutions’ to all your report-writing headaches. These pieces of software should be banned.

Torpid Templates

Pupils and parents deserve better than the exceptionally thoughtless reports ceremoniously coughed out of the school in the summer term. Pick up a handful of reports from the same class and you will see the same ‘stock’ phrases that are largely empty of meaning and do not remotely sound like a teacher talking. All you have to do is replace one child’s name with another, tweak it a bit and job done. Some reports look identical.

That’s not really a report on child progress, more a sad reflection that someone cannot use their own words. Workload is a huge issue and I’m all for saving time and energy but reporting phrases from a data-bank of thousands of options is just a short-cut and cop-out. The worst types of report ‘on the market’ are the tick-box style computer programmes which are the height of automated laziness. These are impersonal, insulting and amateurish.

Wishy-washy phrases from a bank of comments that might offer a ‘best fit’ are unintelligent and actually so general they could be applied to a goat, coat or boat.

Parents don’t want to read insipid gobbledegook and something someone else has written or a computer generated edu-babble, they want to know what it is teachers are thinking; they want the real deal.

Anyone can copy and paste or tick some boxes but this is really poor practice – it is shoe-horning at its worse.

Copy and paste reporting depersonalises the child, cheapens the academic year and paint strips the teacher of respect and integrity.

Honest Reporting

Parents are not asking too much – it’s the end of the year and they need to know what we think. They aren’t bothered about our workload any more than we are bothered about theirs. They just want to know that we have thought carefully about strengths, weaknesses and what areas need focussed attention.

Parents want the personal touch and quite right too, not some corporate mumbo-jumbo that has been bought in to save time – it doesn’t. You can spend just as much time looking for the sort of phrases you think might fit when it would actually be quicker and far more honest and meaningful to write from the heart and the head yourself.

Whilst report writing is spread out over the year, the end of year report is the one that gets the most attention. This is a key communication between teacher and home and so it has to be written with guts, pride and professionalism and not seen as a mindless chore for over half-term.  It has to be first and foremost personal.

Every year parents will complain that reports contain inaccuracies and these aren’t always related to spelling and grammatical cock-ups. The mistakes made relate to work ‘covered’ that in reality wasn’t done or skills supposedly mastered that just haven’t been studied in any real depth. This is where the computer model of reporting makes a fool of the teacher.

Report Writing Tips

1. Jargon-free

Reports need to be written in plain English, not curriculum-speak. Avoid specialist language and professional terminology – ‘mastery’ and ‘higher order thinking’ is meaningful to a teacher but to some parents this won’t mean anything. Parents don’t want to decode a report – it needs to dovetail community understanding so keep it simple and make comments easy to understand.  Sentences need to be 15-20 words with two connected ideas/points  per sentence.

2. Use quality evidence

It’s all about the evidence.  Draw on examples of work throughout the year and focus on what children have actually achieved against curriculum standards. The evidence you provide helps inform parents about areas of strength, areas for development and ways to help.

3. Cut the crap

Avoid superfluous information at all costs. Some reports seem to say a lot about nothing and appear to be filling space rather than saying what needs to be said. Many use redundant phrases that add no value and waste time. Be specific and avoid crowding comments with too much detail or unnecessary comments that act as ‘padding’.

4. Focus on achievement

It is easy to report what has been done and topics that have been studied but ‘Florence has enjoyed learning about the Tudors’ goes nowhere unless linked to a specific achievement. Avoid comments that merely report on task completion because they are unhelpful without evidence.

5. Make it personal

Sidestep the temptation to offer curriculum descriptions and generalist statements that you can extract from a commentary bank. Parents want their child’s progress to be written by the teacher, how well they are moving along the learning continuum. Think about the following: How well are they are progressing towards expected levels of achievement? What are their learning goals and targets? Where do they need to improve? How can they improve? What pointers, tips, advice and suggestions can you give?

11 thoughts on “End Of Year Reports Are Not Good Enough

  1. This is the first post I disagree with from teachers toolkit.
    Reports add to workload and are a waste of time. Face to face meetings are more useful.

    1. Cannot agree more that written reports are a monumental white elephant.

      Hours are spent writing and checking this paperwork exercise, for parents to skim for 5 mins and file in the drawer.

      Would be better if schools had an end of year parents evening instead where real feedback can be given.

  2. I too disagree. In fact I disagree with the idea of even writing reports in the first place! There’s a good chance some of them never get read by the parent. I don’t blame teachers for copying and pasting. The idea that they are required to report on certain students at certain times of the year because it fits with the calendar is a typical box ticking, paper pushing exercise! Teachers should be contacting parents and ‘reporting’ regularly throughout the year praising or highlighting concerns as when they arise. What’s the point in saying “they produced a lovely piece on the Tudors last October, which they should be very proud of” when it’s now May?? Valueless and meaningless. Why shouldn’t teachers use automated systems and tick a box? Report writing is in essence a box ticking exercise. Lose written reports altogether and have an end of year evening encouraging face to face reporting.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe there may be a huge difference between being a primary and secondary teacher. Both teachers workloads mount up in the different ways but in terms of reports primary teachers on the whole write reports for their class of 30 students they teach for the majority of the day. Whereas a secondary teacher can teach 5-30 different classes within a week which equates to 100-600 reports to write. So I can understand why they would use a report writing function and also why a tick box method might be used.

    My argument would be if personalised reports are needed about an individual, maybe have the grades and progress shown, but include a report about a student from their tutor teacher.

    1. I agree with you to an extent, however, as a primary teacher I can tell you we may only have 30 reports to write but many comments as we teach all areas of the curriculum. I teach English, maths, science, geography, history, PE, RE, DT, art, Spanish and music so 30×11 = 330 comments plus a personal comment for each child would be 360 comments in total. In a secondary school they will only be writing a comment for each child they teach in their specific subject area. I am by no means trying to demean secondary teachers as they do a great job but don’t forget we don’t simply write 30 comments as primary teachers. Each report I am currently writing is 3 pages long.

      1. Yes, and I wrote the article as a primary teacher so I know the pressures and also the woeful gaps. Stock phrases stand out like a sore thumb and make reports meaningless.

      2. Absolutely!! I’m glad someone pointed that out! Each one of our reports is approximately 1500 words per child, reporting on a whole curriculum of subjects! That’s 45,000 words!! It takes hours and hours and hours of work!

  4. A friend of mine once manned a water station during the marathon. While he said the same thing to every single person as they got water, the message was unique, relevant and personal to each individual.
    Stock phrases are there because they sum up what teachers want to say. If there are 5 people in a class who are pushing above and beyond why should saying so become an exercise in creative writing?

  5. What a horrible and unhelpful article. I guess the author hasn’t actually been a class teacher responsible for writing a full set of reports for a long time, especially in the age of the new curriculum and never ending paperwork. I think I’ve spent well over 50 hours over the last three weeks writing my class set of reports (during my holidays and evenings, after already working 50+ hours a week teaching, planning and marking). I came here looking for ideas to change the way we do it next year but found no constructive advice, just criticism. If many (almost all?) teachers end up copying and pasting, or using stock phrases, you’ve got to wonder why – it is because the report writing system doesn’t work, is an immense workload, and largely pointless. I’m very keen to simplify my school’s format next year to make them quicker to do and therefore hopefully teachers will be able to write more meaningful comments.

    1. Actually, John is a part-time primary teacher who has suffered from throat cancer, and I suspect to keep in him the classroom, he would prefer using report-writing methods to help produce meaningful reports for parents, whilst also sustaining his health, that then ‘actually lead to some form of improvement’ rather than just writing reports for the hell of it … which we have all had to do in our careers It is important for us all to refrain from making assumptions about fellow colleagues and what works for them … The job is hard enough for all teachers.

  6. I stumbled across this conversation whilst musing what to do about end of year reports in 2020 during the COVID-19 crisis. This is a time when we have all had to think and take stock of what is important in life. I run a school that usually has 400 + happy pupils in it making noise and laughing etc today there are 9. They are still laughing and making noise and being taught lessons! The other 391? Well they are – most of them- engaging with their parent at home with our home learning set up. It is the best parental engagement we have ever had – it is actually amazing! Now back to reports.. We do copy and and paste some section like the chap who said about the water station – there is only so many ways to say the same thing – but the one thing that is always personalised and the one thing that ALL parents read and are desperate to know is that “personal comment” bit. What is my child really like? So that’s always been first on our reports and always been individual for every single child. Slimming down reports for COVID-19 (2020) – most likely! But keeping the bit that means the most – tell me you KNOW my child!

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