Most end-of-year school reports aren’t truly fit for purpose

To limit a report only to the academic is to define a child by one very small facet of their complex selves

“Maeve is at her best when she is able to channel her creativity into positive efforts involving other students. Her contribution to the charity fundraiser was this academic year’s outstanding example and she is to be highly commended for the vital role she played in our school’s success. As for an area where Maeve could further improve, once she learns to better control her impulse to amuse others at a cost to their concentration she will further hone her skills of leadership and responsibility.”

It is only the most progressive schools that offer insights such as this at the close of an academic year. And yet there are many schools which offer precisely the opportunity Maeve benefited from. There is a worrying disconnect between what schools offer students and what they choose to report on formally.

While the typical end-of-year school report for most students receive has some value, it is hard to see how it is truly fit for purpose in 2024. In many schools reports have evolved little in the last quarter century. Too many teachers are writing reports similar to those they themselves received as students – that is certainly true of me. The technology has changed massively but the format and content all too little by comparison. There clearly must be something to mark the end of an academic year’s work, so this isn’t about banning what we have and not replacing it, as that rarely constitutes progress. But to limit a report only to the academic is to define a child by one very small facet of their complex selves.

For starters, the conditions under which end-of-year reports come together are far from ideal. The timing presumes that we teachers do our best and most meaningful work in the lead-up to a long holiday. Really? I’m not convinced that it is anyone’s freshest and most focused time. Getting something done is too likely to take priority over doing it well, and that runs counter to the spirit of recognising a child’s achievements over a long period.

A school with standards will have an underlying motto synonymous with striving for excellence, reaching one’s potential or doing one’s very best

A huge amount happens in a school year and yet little of it features on school reports as they are currently designed. Too much emphasis is placed on the surface aspects of achievement and too little on the murkier place where real growth and learning happens. This is also complex and an area of school life where there may be layers to unpack – and yet we rarely do so.

Schools are busy places and everyone is simply happy to get to the finishing line in summer to begin the recovery period before it all starts again. When it all resumes the wheels turn for another academic year, too often one which is too similar to the previous one. The five- or six-year period in secondary school overlaps with adolescence, and the internal and external changes involved in that are life-changing, literally. The reality is that one physically starts secondary school as a child and leaves as an adult.

We must ask ourselves how well the school a child attends nurtures a comparable degree of change. Schools have core values, a mission statement, perhaps a motto – they have what everyone at the school strives to live up to. There is nothing comfortable about making progress on that journey. Any significant achievement takes a lot out of an individual. If the summer test has been designed to be easy on the corrector, it is not going to stretch the learner. If it can be completed in a fraction of the time it has been timetabled for, it is not fit for purpose. The function there has been to get out quickly and easily, where true progress is slow and extremely uncomfortable.

A school with standards will have an underlying motto synonymous with striving for excellence, reaching one’s potential or doing one’s very best. They all sound lovely but the journey towards truly achieving them is anything but lovely while it is happening.

Are we letting second-level students off the hook because adolescence is hard enough without us pushing them too much at school? Do we like a safe and predictable approach such as the State exams offer? We can hang what we do in school on the two markers offered by the junior cycle and Leaving Certificate exams, and this enables us to justify our current approach to summer reports.

To create true space for the broader range on offer at schools as part of a child’s education is to create space for it when reporting on the child’s year

But then schools actively promote how holistic they are in what they offer children and this is reflected in the range of extracurricular options on offer in many schools. If a school is not creating space for feedback on those when it comes to the summer report card, how committed is the school to the offering on a truly educational level? In other words, is an extracurricular offering there for the growth and learning opportunity it represents or is it there as a breather from schoolwork?

To create true space for the broader range on offer at schools as part of a child’s education is to create space for it when reporting on the child’s year. If it is truly linked to the school’s mission and the part school can play in a child’s development, it should feature in the areas of feedback a school puts in place. This will not require significantly more work but it would dramatically change the profile of what a student and their parents read when the report arrives home.

More children would have an opportunity to excel and all children would have a broader range of opportunities to do so. The summer report would be as comprehensive and holistic as the promises that were made at the start of the year.

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