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Clocks, wedding cakes and lazy fat cats: the confusing world of pupil reports

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There are plenty of famous examples of school reports that got it wrong.

The advice for Gary Lineker was that "he must devote less of his time to sport if he wants to be a success", while Einstein was apparently told that he would “never amount to anything”.

Then there is, of course, the oft-cited description of John Lennon as “hopeless … certainly on the road to failure”.

To us, those comments sound comically misjudged, although the teachers who wrote them could not possibly have predicted the huge success of their disengaged, inattentive students.

I think we’re generally better, nowadays, at encouraging children where they’re struggling, rather than writing them off as failures. I can’t imagine the terms ‘imbecilic’, ‘lunatic’, ‘albino’ or ‘smug’ appearing in any school reports this year (correct me if I’m wrong though!)

We know how much pupils and parents value detailed feedback, but condensing an entire year’s worth of learning and progress into a few short lines can't be easy, and making the comments personal to every one of your pupils must be even harder. I certainly don’t envy the task.

As we approach the final term’s report rush, I asked my colleagues at The Key for some tips on writing school reports, based on the most memorable comments they ever received*.

It's good to be honest ...

In year 6 we did applique and instead of sewing my shapes onto my cushion cover I glued them on with a glue stick. They all fell off.

The teacher diplomatically told my parents: “Your daughter is, by her own admission, not a seamstress”.

... especially when the facts are unavoidable ...

As a young boy I sang soprano in the school choir. When I was 11, my music teacher wrote that my efforts at choir practice had “suddenly dropped”. My parents got the message.

... but there is such a thing as being too harsh.

Starting secondary school was a real shock for me. For the whole of year 7, I had difficulty organising my work and regularly lost my belongings. Most teachers were quite patient and understanding, apart from my very strict geography teacher. Her brief but damning comment to my parents in my first school report was: 

“Your daughter is THE problem in my class.”

Consider softening the blow with a bit of comedy ...

I had a report from my RE teacher who described teaching me as “like being the stooge guest on Have I Got News for You”.

... but avoid setting the bar too high.

I would like to take issue with my deputy head in middle school, who told my parents that the world was my oyster and I would succeed at whatever I was interested in.

I fear this set me up for failure from an early age. My parents are still a bit nonplussed that I am not the huge success they had been promised.

A combination of praise and criticism is generally effective.

My French teacher wrote, when I was 12: “He has a voice like a siren, but usually it’s a warning that something correct is coming my way”.

It can be tempting, but beware the use of stock phrases.

One of my teachers wrote about how I’d "really enjoyed and got a lot out of that term’s trip”. 

I was actually ill and off school that day …

Metaphors are good for a bit of colour, but can cause confusion.

I had a teacher who wrote bewildering reports where students were either ‘clocks’ (which meant you ticked along nicely), ‘stopwatches’ (quick and raring to go), ‘one-tier wedding cakes with sloppy icing’ (generally a bit rubbish) or ‘lazy fat cats basking in the sun’ (?!).

His pupils usually got assigned one of these four comparisons, and we never had any idea why.

Good luck!

* Identities have been protected.

If your school is about to embark on end-of-year report writing, why not use our templates?

Members of The Key for School Leaders can download template reports for primary pupils and secondary pupils (log-in required).

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