By Robert Gullifer, headmaster of New College School

It might seem a bit odd to say that one of the pleasures of this time of year is writing end-of-year reports on every pupil in the school. But it’s actually a huge privilege to read about all their achievements and then be able to offer some words of congratulation, encouragement or advice. Above all, it’s an opportunity to affirm individual talents and interests.

Statistics and the big picture for year groups, cohorts, schools, LEAs or particular subjects tend, understandably, to dominate our educational discussions and we are in danger of losing sight of very real achievements which can’t immediately be measured. Add to this the need all young people feel to fit in with their friends (made more acute for teenagers by social media) and no wonder the unique, special qualities of every child seem undervalued.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that what goes on in schools outside the classroom is just as influential in a child’s development as what goes on inside the classroom. Schools quite properly and diligently assess pupils’ academic progress, but are we as attentive in rewarding good interactions in the playground? Small acts of kindness? Cheerful, good humour? Independent initiative? Do we give pupils opportunities to exercise responsibility and leadership? Opportunities to reflect positively on their own well-being? Opportunities to share common interests with teachers? In sum, are we helping children to find out what will help them become contented human beings? That may seem a grand statement, but surely it’s at the heart of what we should be doing.

Care for the mental health of children and young people is now rightly at the top of the educational agenda. It’s clear that some of children’s mental health problems derive from pupils worrying about what they have or have not achieved compared with others.

I’m firmly of the view that one of the ways in which we can support children is by identifying their interests, setting realistic challenges for their development and then celebrating the milestones along the way. And, of course, picking them up when they stumble or feel under pressure because they think they are not ‘cool’ or are not measuring up to (often wrongly) perceived expectations. “Be yourself and then a bit better” is a mantra which is both ambitious and realistic: it recognises talent and potential together, celebrating all the individuality we see every day in our classrooms. It doesn’t matter if nobody else in the class collects, say, model aircraft, so long as schools and teachers foster a respect amongst the whole community for the enthusiasm and knowledge such an interest demands.

So “being yourself” should not mean being self-centred; if pupils learn from an early age that we all have different and valuable talents then school quickly becomes a place in which children are comfortable in expressing their own strengths and celebrating the achievements of others, rather than drawing unhelpful comparisons.

Of course, all this takes a bit of organisation and even risk: giving teachers the professional trust and opportunity to go ‘off-piste’ and breaking down the mindset of simply measuring groups and cohorts by limited outcomes. When new colleagues ask me for advice about report writing, I stress that all report comments should show that, as teachers, we know our pupils as individuals in and beyond the classroom. Then, what we have to say about their progress has much more chance of helping them to be “a bit better”. When I look back at my own school reports from several decades ago, I’m not sure “Good work and progress’’ meant all that much.