It’s a school report – not a crystal ball!

Could do better? Couldn't we all?

Could do better? Couldn’t we all?

It was a beautiful morning as I arrived at the university campus this morning. I had ridden from home through gently rolling countryside, the sun warming my back, the air clean and a gentle breeze to cool me on my way. Having deposited my bike in the cycle shed near my office I walked towards the building encountering three school students sitting on a bench in the sun. Many such students take a short cut across the campus on their way to a local secondary school, some stopping to kick a football around one of the playing fields, others simply putting off until the last moment their arrival at the school gate.

As I was passing the three lads, one of them, very politely wished me good morning and asked about my ride. I was happy to engage in some light hearted banter with them, but a few minutes conversation revealed that this was not a week that they had looked forward to with any great affection. Just a couple of weeks away from the end of term and with an approaching summer holiday I had anticipated that they might be cheerful enough. Sadly, this was not the case. What, you might ask, was the source of their despondency? Apparently during this week there will be two major and unwelcome events in their young lives. Firstly, the presentation of internal school examination results and secondly, the distribution of end of year reports to be taken home and discussed with parents.

“Cheer up”, I said, “the results might be a pleasant surprise. I’m sure you will all have done ok.” My young companions did not appear convinced. “Anyway, the school holidays will soon be here and you will be able to put examinations and reports behind you for a while.” This last comment likewise appeared to have little impact upon their gloomy demeanour.

Leaving these erstwhile scholars to ponder their impending fate I made my way to the shower and found myself reflecting on my own school days all those years ago.

It occurs to me that somewhere at the bottom of a drawer at my parents home, and hopefully long forgotten and never again to be discovered, may be a copy or two of my school reports. Although these could well now be classified as historical documents, I would certainly hope that they might be destroyed before they could be used as evidence against me! What I wonder, might a brief scan of these documents reveal? Can I recall how I felt about these annual missives which constituted an interrogation of my performance over the course of a school year? Like the young pupils who I encountered on campus this morning, I suspect that I watched my father open the sealed envelope containing my school report with something less than a happy countenance.

What would my school report have revealed to the reader? I’m sure I would have been quite happy with the comments from my English teachers, and likewise with those reflecting on my performance in history, geography, French and physical education. In the sciences I like to think that my enthusiasm would have been acknowledged, even if my marks did not always represent my attitude towards the subjects. Similarly, my art teacher would have given me a sympathetic hearing – absolutely no talent, but tries hard. But then we come to mathematics. Always my bête noire, in part because of what I suspect was my personal lack of regard for a series of teachers, who similarly did not appreciate the argumentative boy who they had to endure in their lessons. I’m sure when my maths teachers said ” could do better”, they really meant “we wish he would go away!”

Thinking back in this manner serves no real useful purpose. However, as I shuddered at my recollections of standing before my eager parents, as they tore with undisguised enthusiasm at the sealed brown envelope containing the judgement upon my performance, I can relate to the depression that has descended upon the boys with whom I conversed earlier.

Recording and reporting on the school year is undoubtedly an important ritual and one that parents and teachers have accepted as an annual event. I wonder to what extent the school report can be regarded in any way as a predictor of future performance? Is this in any way an exact science or is it simply a reading of the runes with which we try to disguise the inadequacy of the process? Simply out of curiosity I sought out the comments from the school reports of a number of successful individuals – they make for interesting reading.

“He will never amount to anything”. – Albert Einstein, scientist.

 “Certainly on the road to failure… hopeless . . . rather a clown in class…wasting other pupils’ time.” –  John Lennon, musician.

“Judi would be a very good pupil if she lived in this world.” – Dame Judi Dench, actress.

So, though I doubt that it is of much consolation for those anxiously awaiting the fall of the executioner’s axe over the next couple of weeks, I would suggest that whilst the school report is a useful device for recording progress, it is a somewhat blunt instrument in terms of the overall scheme of things. It is certainly important to take heed of the comments made by the teachers writing on these documents; after all they are keen that you should do well. But perhaps for some receiving their reports over the next couple of weeks, the greatest pleasure may be in looking back in a few years’ time and recognising that they are not necessarily the greatest instruments of prediction.

Cheer up, the summer holiday will be upon us very soon.

4 thoughts on “It’s a school report – not a crystal ball!

  1. Hi Richard – back from a week of holiday. Last year about this time I was home in Australia where my Mum gave me my old report cards that she had kept over the years. I was quite stunned by some of the comments I read. According to my teachers I of course ‘could do better’. As a teenager I had neither that ‘ability or background’ to do maths. I wasted all my time in class and was a ‘constant distraction to myself and others’. And those were the positive comments! 🙂 I can’t imagine writing such things about a kid in my own practice as a teacher.

    At the time I remember dreading getting these reports outlining my personal failings. Now I see them as an admission of the failings of my teachers. I was bored in class, and they were unable to make their subjects interesting. I was distracted and a distraction, but their techniques for managing this amounted to a lot of nagging. I ‘could do better’ but what were they doing to help me to do better, as is the job of a teacher? Looking back I see a group more concerned about ‘their teaching’ than ‘my learning’ and way too prepared to blame the student. I clearly remember the majority of my friends coming home with very similar reports, which says something.

    This of course is not to detract from the fact that even as I kid I was personally responsible for my learning. I could have improved my attitude, I could have tried to engage more. But but as we know kids rarely get to set the topics of study and the delivery of the content, which I found beyond dull. So where would my motivation come from?

    This is all an argument for more student involvement and participation in setting the direction of their learning. Also, I think the teachers of today are way better at recognizing that when a student is clearly bored with the subject matter, they have a responsibility to do something about it. I’m thankful for that shift in thinking.

    • Hi Tim,
      A lot of interesting points here about responsibility. Much food for thought I’m sure. I sometimes think that there is a problem when teachers want to promote students in their own image. This is particularly true in secondary education where teachers tend to recognise students who are interested in their own subject, but fail to recognise that others may have talents and interests in other directions.
      The notion of increased student involvement and building upon personal interests in currently out of fashion here. However, I agree with you, that well motivated learners are those whose interests are recognised and fired up by good teachers.
      Hope you had a good break.

  2. Hi Richard Hi Tim,

    As the schools are closing for summer holidays in the UK, schools in India have just started their academic year with monsoon rain (not as usual though). It is important to know about students’ school reports, there is no such a thing in many schools in India (so students do not need to worry about it), we have year end (usually Mar/April) exams though. I also like the idea of teachers should have a responsibility to do something on children’s boredom and other learning related issues in classrooms.


  3. Hi Johnson,
    Whilst I know that many schools in India do not issue end of year reports, I am conscious that the private schools are increasingly doing so. (I have an example given to me by a principal of a school in Karnataka). My issue is not with school reports per se, but rather with the fact that they tend to report only on academic attainment and have also been used by some teachers as a vehicle for their criticism of pupils in a way that undermines confidence and causes anxiety. Tim’s point about teacher responsibilities is critical here. We need to instil positive attitudes towards all learners if progress is to be made.

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