School Reports – Could Do Better

‘This term Marius has shown a great interest in the world, unfortunately it is a world of his own.’

Thus my Geography teacher found some delight in ridiculing my imaginative response to meanders, oxbow lakes and his achingly boring teaching. In fact, if it weren’t for his, and many others’, end of year reports I would have left school believing that teaching was a profession devoid of wit.

As it was, the end of year school report in July used to be seized by teachers as an opportunity to hone their blunt classroom sarcasm, of the, ‘Does your dog survive wholly on a diet of homework McKechnie?’ variety, for a more sophisticated adult audience.

‘Before writing in tests, I recommend boys read questions over twice. Marius might benefit by reading them once,’ wrote witty Mr ‘Fartridge’ Partridge.

For others the simple damnation of faint praise was more than enough. ‘Ping Pong improved.’ was all my PE teacher found to say one year. A man of few words, most of them expletives, he may have been genuinely grasping for something kind to put; but my parents instantly saw an entire and devastating critique of my sporting underachievement.

Even the head joined in the fun. My best  friend was the unfortunate recipient of, ‘… if Chris fails to learn next year’s History, he will be doomed to repeat it.’

Along with the classic phrases like ‘could do better’ and ‘needs to try harder,’ the accusation that was most often levelled at me in reports, throughout my education into University itself, was: ‘fails to see the wood for the trees.’ A statement that bewildered me and, frankly, still does. I knew it was a paradigm concerning overcoming ambiguity with prioritisation and decisiveness but I was always plagued by the ambiguity of the phrase itself. Did it mean I missed seeing the detail of the wood that the trees were made of because I was too busy looking at the bigger collective of trees? Or could I not see the bigger, forest-like, ‘wood’ because I was too busy looking at the detail of the trees that make it up?

Happily my unwillingness, or inability, to prioritise, eventually turned into an asset. For a writer, seeing every angle and argument without bias is a positive quality. Or is it? Maybe it isn’t. I do find it hard to tell.

But, with those snarky, witty, school reports in mind, when my first child when to school, I positively relished the idea of reading the delicious wit that would issue forth at the end of the year.  And, like so many events that come after the age of 30, I was disappointed.

Unfortunately, today’s school reports are a far cry from those Quink Ink, acerbic miniature pen portraits of my youth. Now they’re computer printouts with suspiciously formulaic phrases that oblige teachers to include ‘positive reinforcement’ backed up by ‘performance indicators’:

(Pupil’s Name) has worked [delete as appropriate] (hard / diligently /with mounting despair) this year. (Pupil’s Name) struggled with (difficult subject) but has shown (excellent / valiant / slow) progress in (easy subject). Next year (Pupil’s Name repeated again just to make sure you sound like you know who you’re talking about) will need to focus on their (entirely random goal picked out of the air)…

Gone are the days when a child could learn the fine art of subtle irony and subtext from a school report. Gone is  the carefully chosen velvet phrase packing an iron fist beneath. Finished are the days when the report of a shotgun would be more welcome. Never again will I see the sort of considered critical wit like the one I recieved from my 4th year Maths teacher.

‘In Maths Marius struggles to see the point, which makes working with decimals very challenging.’


First published in