Jonathan Self picks out 10 of his favourite bad school reports of all time, and laments the fact that the age of political correctness has robbed parents, children and teachers of the refreshing honesty which once characterised these important communications.
‘Stephen has glaring faults and they have certainly glared at us this term’ – (Stephen Fry, actor and writer)
‘Jilly has set herself an extremely low standard, which she has failed to maintain’ – (Jilly Cooper, author)
‘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)
‘Certainly on the road to failure… hopeless… rather a clown in class… wasting other pupils’ time’ – (John Lennon, musician)
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‘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)
‘It would seem that Briers thinks he is running the school and not me. If this attitude persists, one of us will have to leave’ – (Richard Briers, actor)
‘He will either go to prison or become a millionaire’ – (Sir Richard Branson, entrepreneur)
‘He will never amount to anything’ – (Albert Einstein, physicist)
‘A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel’ – (Roald Dahl, author)
‘Off you go and I am glad to get rid of you’ – (On Laurie Lee, poet and author)
We have certainly entered a dark age when it comes to school reports. Indeed, nothing suggests so forcibly to me a decline in educational standards than the – by necessity – bland twaddle sent three times a year to parents of school-age children.
I speak here with some experience, for, in addition to my own reports from the late 1960s and 1970s, I can compare those of my seven children, which cover every decade since the 1980s.
When I was growing up, teachers were both fearless and critical in their report writing. In addition to providing factual information, they offered a character assessment, which covered the child’s attitude, behaviour, intelligence, ability and skills.
‘The improvement in his handwriting has revealed his inability to spell.’
They were the sort of blunt, candid reports that had Richmal Crompton’s William Brown fuming: ‘If I ever get into parliament… I’ll pass a lor against reports.’ J. B. Priestley put it well, too, when he said: ‘As we read the school reports on our children, we realise with a sense of relief that can rise to delight that – thank Heaven – nobody is reporting in this fashion on us.’
Today’s educators, on the other hand, have to confine themselves to a list of the child’s achievements (such as they may be) and blind encouragement. The result tends to be formulaic: a combination of computer-compiled scores, platitudes and over-used statements that have clearly been selected from the limited range of options allowed. Lazy children ‘have yet to fulfil their potential’, the disruptive are ‘animated’ and ‘less able’ covers a multitude of sins.
This is a shame. 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.
‘The tropical forests are safe when John enters the woodwork room, for his projects are small and his progress is slow.’
Moreover, there is a British tradition, stretching back hundreds of years, of brutal honesty and humour – a child who misses every class will be described as ‘consistent’ and a poor exam result referred to as ‘effortlessly achieved’.
The acerbic comments of yesteryear were evidence that a school took its in loco parentis role seriously, for no child benefits from mindless praise and endless positivity. Painful as it may have been for Stephen Fry’s parents to read that their son ‘has glaring faults and they have certainly glared at us this term’, it was still valuable information to have.
In the past, British parents rarely, if ever, questioned the veracity of school reports or the right of the teacher to express their frustrations when dealing with a difficult, lazy, disruptive or inattentive child. If a report stated, for example, that a child was ‘depriving a village somewhere of its idiot’, the parents accepted it and teachers did not have to worry about repercussions.
‘For this pupil, all ages are dark.’
This sense of freedom and impunity was lost with the advent of the parent–teacher meeting (page 126), a relatively modern invention, which, for the first time, brought teachers into regular, formal contact with their charges’ parents.
Another notable difference between praeter tradit and nunc tradit is that, in the old days, reports were almost all carefully worded, with faultless spelling and grammar.
The same cannot always be said nowadays. The twins’ recent primary school reports frequently contained glaring errors and it was all I could do to stop myself from marking them and sending them back. The sad truth is that, when it comes to contemporary school reports, some authors could try harder.
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