When I was at school the annual report came on one folio size sheet of paper with a separate box for each subject. I went away to university, took a different path in life and then decided to start teaching. When I came back into the classroom as a teacher, I was astonished by the changes.
Reports came in a thick wadge with a separate page for each subject. It was printed in a font that pretended to be script but it was generated by a computer. Teachers in their teams decided on statements for each of the key learning objectives. Instead of writing a report, we just had to check boxes on a sheet that was read by a machine. This then generated the full text of the report, which was supposed to cover all the attainment targets we had dutifully taken from the National Curriculum Schemes of Work.
When I gave out the reports to my tutor group, the kids looked through their reports and compared notes. One of the boys raised his hand.
“What is it?” I asked.
“My report is exactly the same as John’s,” he said.
“Yes. We checked.”
It was not that surprising. Most students fall somewhere in the middle of the band in most subjects. Even when they don’t, the language of the paragraphs was so similar that you could barely tell the difference. Who cares whether you are “gaining confidence in” a subject, “confident” in it, or “completely confident” in it. The descriptors were accurate according to the schemes of work, but they were unbearably bland.
It was lousy communication. Instead of giving a simple grade, descriptive text had been invented to make the grade “say something”. The content was just like the phony script font: it was fake. Children could supposedly see with absolute accuracy where they were according to the Attainment Targets and levels of the National Curriculum. I don’t think any of them were taken in by this. None of them felt that their reports had much to say about them.
You can’t have decent communication with anyone unless you establish between both parties what it is you are talking about. There is no shortcut. Dialogue is essential. Curriculum objectives are there to guide teachers in their work. They are neither motivating nor particularly interesting to learners. Children are more motivated and interested in one authentic comment written by a teacher who has thought about them as a person, than a hundred accurate grade descriptors.
If you really want to communicate you have to engage the other person in the conversation.
Dialogue is Essential
Compassionate dialogue is at the heart of our best practice. This is as true for families as it is for students. We communicate frankly and openly with families. From the very start of their relationship with the school they enter a respectful dialogue with the school. This does not consist of the school giving advice and coaching to parents. The school doesn’t present its conclusions in a comprehensive booklet! It is a conversation in which the perceptions and actions of both sides are valid and relevant to the progress of children.
The moment they enroll their children, families receive a welcome message from the child’s tutor, setting up a first meeting. The teacher responsible for parent engagement also gets in touch. Reporting to families is built on the foundation of a relationship where real communication is key. It is not an end in itself; it is a part of the dialogue.
The school is open with information. There are many documents outlining school policies and handbooks for parents and students. Teachers openly share information with parents: there is a regularly updated file in each child’s online folder which includes teacher comments and examples of projects; parents can also add information and images to this file. We think it is better to keep this real: we love it when parents read to their kids, have deep conversations with them, go for a hike or visit a museum.
There are many opportunities to talk to the class teacher. Parents and carers can usually have a short chat after school hours without making an appointment. They may also volunteer to work in the school and have direct contact with teaching staff. In addition, there are many social events through the school year at which parents can get to know members of staff: festivities, performances and exhibitions, for example. We welcome parents who want to bring their own experience and skills into the school and there are mechanisms in place to ensure that this contribution is balanced and appropriate.
Every term families receive a short report from the school in line with our reporting schedule. We don’t intend this document to be comprehensive or clinically accurate. It gives an indication of National Curriculum levels, but that is not its only purpose. It celebrates things that have been achieved and gives some ideas about things that can be attended to. There is space on the report for students and families to add their own observations. There is a formal parent teacher conference day at which families can book a slot to talk to any teacher who has contact with their child. This comes right after they get the report.
If parents have significant worries, they can arrange a formal conversation including the Head of Phase and the Principal. Formal conversations are always minuted and normally take place in the Principal’s office. Possible reasons for a formal conversation are requests for expert advice over learning problems, exceptional requests for absence or formal complaints. Complaints always follow the school Complaints Procedure.