School reports – a developmental journey

Parents and guardians may recall that I wrote in the opening Headlines newsletter for this term about a change we have made to our reporting. In a way it is only a relatively small change. We have not altered the style or structure of the reports, nor have we reduced the scope of what are, we hope, supportive and helpful documents for both parents and pupils.

This said, we have reconsidered the language we use to talk about various aspects of pupil performance and attitudes to learning, and, at its heart, this is much more than a minor tweak. As I explained in the newsletter, when we use indicators to offer an overview of pupil achievement and performance, we will now focus on development. We were keen to redefine what might be seen as more limiting and/or critical indicators, such as ‘Good’ or ‘Changes needed’. Instead we are now using the terms ‘Acquiring’, ‘Emerging’, ‘Enhancing’, ‘Extending’ and ‘Mastering’, to refer to pupil progress, prep and attitude to learning. 

The change in the indicators is logical and mirrors the work that has been done in the background over many years to ensure reports, feedback and verbal interactions such as tutorials are more focused on the individual.  These new terms are far more in line with our philosophy and aims. We say ‘we believe in our girls’, and for this to be more than just words, we have to demonstrate that belief in every aspect of school life. Likewise, if we truly expect the girls to fulfil the second part of our motto ‘and they believe in themselves’, we must try to avoid potential pitfalls that may impact negatively on their self-esteem or personal development.

So why is using developmental language so important? Firstly, it helps pupils recognise their strengths. When pupils read positive and constructive feedback about their abilities and achievements, it boosts their self-esteem and fosters a sense of accomplishment. This recognition of their strengths can motivate them to continue excelling in those areas.

Secondly, developmental language provides students with the guidance they need to make improvements. Constructive feedback not only points out areas for growth but also offers specific advice on how to enhance skills. This targeted advice empowers pupils by giving them actionable steps to follow, promoting self-directed learning, and encouraging them to take ownership of their progress.

Moreover, developmental language promotes a growth mindset. When students understand that their abilities are not fixed but can be developed through effort and learning, they are more likely to persevere in the face of challenges. This mindset shift is essential for long-term success, as it cultivates resilience and a willingness to embrace challenges as opportunities for growth.

It is perhaps worth reflecting on reports and how much they have changed since many parents (and teachers themselves!) were at school. In an amusing article in Country Life, Jonathan Self lists some of the more egregious comments made by teachers towards their students in the past:

‘Is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or other. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere’. (Winston Churchill, Prime Minister)

‘He must devote less of his time to sport if he wants to be a success. You can’t make a living out of football’. (Gary Lineker, footballer)

‘Jilly has set herself an extremely low standard, which she has failed to maintain’. (Jilly Cooper, author)

While we may smile at these embarrassing comments from teachers whose pupils clearly went on to demonstrate success far in excess of their own achievements, it is worth reflecting on the many pupils who will have been negatively affected by similarly unhelpful opinions.

One of the most important responsibilities of educators is to scrupulously avoid impacting negatively on pupil confidence. Confidence, (arguably alongside basic literacy and numeracy), is what might be referred to as a ‘hygiene factor’ when it comes to a young person achieving well academically, or in sport or artistic pursuits. 

When I mention educators, of course, this is a wide group of people and the role of families and friends cannot be ignored in this. However, the impact teachers can have on academic confidence and self-image far outweighs any other factors. According to research collated by the Australian educational researcher Prof John Hattie, positive teacher estimates of achievement, and high teacher expectations based on developmental feedback can lead to enhancements in pupil outcomes that are the equivalent of over a grade’s improvement.

Needless to say, this approach needs to be embedded in sound pedagogy and based in an environment where pupil wellbeing has a high priority for the best progress to be made. But if we can avoid unhelpful language that leads to self doubt and demotivation, we are already heading in the right direction.

In Self’s article he comments that we must avoid reports that are ‘formulaic: a combination of computer-compiled scores, platitudes and overused statements’. We couldn’t agree more. Indeed our full reports are always written in original prose, monitored by Heads of Faculty and Heads of Year. They include a personal message from the Head, who reads every single one. I believe we live up to the writer’s ambition that, ‘A well-written school report will, of course, congratulate and commend where appropriate. More importantly, it will highlight areas that need attention and advise pupils and parents alike of potential issues. It is personal and individual.’

Hattie, J. 2012, Visible learning for teachers – maximising impact on learning, Routledge

Mr Rickman
Deputy Head