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The end of plain speaking

As someone recently retired from teaching I have written a great many reports on pupils during the thirty-eight years of my career. At the outset of that career parents seemed prepared to accept that their offspring were not beyond criticism, that they might, in fact, have work to do in terms of growing to maturity as a decent human being. Those were the days!

How interesting it is to read reports from earlier ages where teachers have disastrously underestimated their charges. One of John Lennon’s teachers expressed this opinion: “Certainly on the road to failure... hopeless...” and Einstein’s teacher, “He will never amount to anything.” Unfortunately, such entertainment will be denied to us in future. Now matter how successful the individual may be in their career we will never be able to see that their teachers once thought them idle, feckless or disaffected. The likelihood is that their teacher will have pre-emptively excised such references from their report before the head teacher requires them to do so. Such is the changed balance of power in the relationship between schools and parents, at least in this country. Those of you in the USA or other countries may wish to let me know how things are different there.

It used to be the case that teachers were (relatively) respected members of society whose word counted for something. Children sent home from school in disgrace could expect further stern action at home, as parents instinctively supported the school in its action. There was trust in the school and its teachers to act fairly and wisely with regard to the children in their charge. Even at the outset of my career this was beginning to change. Parents began to take their children’s sides in such matters, even when it was quite clear that the child was at fault. This is not to say that schools didn’t sometimes get it wrong – they did, but the presumption was always that the school knew best. Shouting matches between irate parents and head teachers became commonplace (with the head teachers generally being the recipients of the shouting) and it was clear that the old certainties were being challenged. Soon, relationships between teachers and parents acquired a diplomatic flavour previously entirely absent. Now teachers had to be careful what they said for fear of giving offence. There was always the implicit risk that little Johnny’s dad might come up to the school and punch your lights out if he didn’t care for your phrasing of his son’s report.

And so reports have become bland, anodyne concoctions, often constructed from stock phrases previously stored in a bank of such items, and picked out to suit the circumstance. In order to discover whether their child is dense, difficult or indolent parents must read carefully read between the lines, looking for the absence of superlative praise rather than the presence of criticism.

I rather miss the frank honesty of some of the reports my own teachers wrote about me.

‘Martin must learn to apply himself in lessons. He is quite lazy and must understand that gazing out of the window is no substitute for application to his studies.’ They were right, too. However, to write such a report today would certainly be to invite the incredulous censure of the head teacher. It would be returned to you with an acid comment requiring you to re-word it.


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