Sunday 11 July 2010

Why school reports are so bland

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know that the combination of old-fashioned and radically modern is, in my opinion, often a sign of institutions that are going in the right direction. Slow Food, for example. And it seems to me that the UK's primary schools are often in the same category.

In fact, our primary schools are in many ways the jewel in the crown of British public services in this country, despite more than a decade of Ofsted's less than tender ministrations. They are humane places, with committed and professional staff, who have largely managed to resist the kind of 'modernisation' that has so hollowed out other services.

My son's school is absolutely brilliant. I won't say which it is, for reasons that will become clear. Because one area of primary school practice which does seem to have suffered is report-writing.

It wasn't ever that informative, let's face it. And the report I hold in my hand is actually very thoughtful and effective, but it still betrays some of the bizarre meaninglessness that have crept in to everyone's reports.

"He is developing his understanding of the numbers to 20" (well, it is maths). "He has required support to understand that labels carry key pieces of information" (what on earth does that mean?).

The real problem, at least in the most bland reports, is that these phrases in school reports are often not actually written by the teacher. They create their reports using software like ReportAssist or Teachers Report Assistant where they tick the boxes related to attainments and pre-set phrases pop up.

This also explains, if you have wondered – as I have – about the banality of so many Ofsted reports about schools. The answer is that the human element has been removed. The inspectors tick the boxes for specific standards, and the phrases go straight into the report. That is the problem: we are not interacting with a human being, but with a computer programme, and are therefore not getting the insights we should, at least in such a way that we can act on them.

Of course report-writing software saves time, but it also makes the exercise all but pointless. It is a small example of the way that IT has been used - at vast public expense - to hollow out our institutions, rather than to support professionals to do their job more effectively. It has been used to standardise and control, not to empower.

That is the New Labour stamp. It can be unravelled, and unravelling it all will save money from one side of government to the other. But only with the aid of a big, bold idea - that face to face interaction between frontline professionals and the public is the key to success.

That means smaller institutions, more local, with IT used to empower not disempower. It means an end to the huge targets, measurement, specification and auditing regime. It also means investing in what is local. But will they have the nerve?

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