School Reports: Could Do Better?

22/12/2014 12:28 | Updated 20 May 2015

Mother helping daughter with homework

When today's parents and grandparents were at school it seems there was something of an end of term school report challenge going on in the staffroom - teachers must surely have sat competing to see who could make the most damning statement possible about a pupil.

Many a child was condemned with comments of the 'destined to go nowhere in life beyond the dole office' or 'completely lacking any talent or common sense whatsoever' variety. (See below for more classic school report put-downs.)

Often what was said turned out, in retrospect, to be amusingly lacking in predictive power. Take this about none other than Albert Einstein: 'he will never make anything of himself'. Or the teacher who wrote 'certainly on the road to failure' about John Lennon's report.

Even in the 1980s, things were still written that would now be toned down and turned into a positive learning point instead of a criticism.

Natalie, in her early forties, was on the receiving end of 'her English is so poor she should forget writing and work in a nursery'. Ahem, she's now a professional writer.

Katherine, a similar age, had a Year 7 report featuring the slightly odd 'shows no aptitude for this subject but could probably re-plumb your central heating system' from her physics teacher. She went on to get a top grade in her GCSE in the subject.

Many of us can look back on these old reports with good humour now but at the time, they could feel like emotional paper cuts to your self esteem.

Sixty-something Marion, who has had a very successful career in the public sector and recently became the proud owner of a PhD, says: "I have still got all my reports.


"If we were not Oxford or Cambridge material we were written off at my school. When I got my PhD I really wanted to go back and say 'see'!"


For every Marion out there who was spurred on to prove the teachers' brutal opinions wrong, there were surely many others who figured there was no point in applying themselves in class as, after all, they were destined for failure regardless. Somewhere along the way teachers cut down on the bluntness and toned down their comments. And here we are now, as parents, finding ourselves receiving reports that are often so bland, we barely recognise our children at all.

This is not only for fear of damaging self esteem and being negative but also thanks to the popularity of computer-based report writing software in schools. Such programmes provide teachers with a quick and easy bank of set statements to pick from for each pupil.

I have every sympathy for teachers who are overworked and drowning in admin these days – creating 30 reports takes a long time when you've got to scour the minutiae of endless performance criteria - but report writing software is the cause of many a parent's disappointment when they open that brown envelope at the end of term.

As one mum of my acquaintance said about her son's most recent report,


It might as well have been about a robot.

Another mother, Judy, who has two primary aged boys, now tends to just fast forward straight to the short paragraph at the end that the teacher actually writes in a personal way: "I find their school reports pretty uninformative.

"Apart from the section from the teacher, which is personal, it is obvious that they have chosen from a list of possible comments."

So what would parents like to see inside those envelopes when they're handed out in the last days of this academic year?

For mother of two, Siobhan, the answer's a balance – something more honest and insightful than most reports have become, but not as harshly critical as those of previous generations.

"I don't think outright negativity would be appropriate but there are ways to say 'could use a little more help with', or 'should focus on this subject a bit more'.

"The non-committal approach is not very helpful or informative and all parents I'm sure would help their kids with stuff they were struggling with - if they actually knew they were struggling."

No one sensible wants to return to those 'will never get anywhere in life' days, and we know writing reports can be a time-consuming chore for teachers, but the annual school report really matters to us parents.

It's our only written feedback a year, so come on schools, please can we ditch the computer-generated generalisations in favour of something a little more meaningful and informative?

A report that actually tells us how our children are really doing would be lovely to receive, whether it's good, bad or somewhere in the middle.

Some of our favourite famously damning old school report lines:

"He has glaring faults and they have certainly glared at us this term....English: bottom, rightly." About Stephen Fry, comedian, actor and author.

"He has no ambition."

About Winston Churchill, wartime Prime Minister.

"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."

About Richard Briers, actor.

"Certainly on the road to failure... hopeless... rather a clown in class... wasting other pupils' time." About Beatle, John Lennon.

"He is rebellious, objectionable, idle, imbecilic, inefficient, antagonising, untidy, lunatic, albino, conceited, inflated, impertinent, underhand, lazy and smug."

About Michael Heseltine, former Deputy Prime Minister.

"I hate to say this, but this boy will never get anywhere in life."

About Eric Morecambe, comedian.

"Too interested in sport – you can't make a living out of football."

About Gary Lineker, footballer and commentator.

"He will never amount to anything."

About Albert Einstein.

"Writes indifferently...knows nothing of grammar."

About Charlotte Bronte, author.

"Alan can do better than this. He has ability, but seems afraid to use it."

Alan Sugar, entrepreneur.

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Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.

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