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U3A Writing: School Report

….Elizabeth has worked well but this result is a little disappointing. Impetuosity which results in carelessness is the main drawback…

Elizabeth Robison recalls one of the most dreaded of all documents, the school report.

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Cole St Primary School, Birkenhead
Summer Term 1953
Class 3A
Containing 48 scholars
Position in class: B
Absence 0
Punctuality: Excellent

Elizabeth has worked well but this result is a little disappointing. Impetuosity which results in carelessness is the main drawback. George Audley, Class Teacher.

She must adopt a steadier attitude. Special supervision will be made to demand such an attitude next year. Work is satisfactory and pleasing.
G M Jones, Headteacher.

This report haunted me for years! My mother would quote: ‘Impetuosity which results in carelessness is the main drawback.’ like a Greek chorus every time I made a rash decision or a bad choice. The trouble was that both the class teacher and the head were distant associates of the family, so it was as though I had brought shame on us all! And would it not have been so much nicer if the head could have saved his verbosity and simply written ‘Work is satisfactory and pleasing’!

Three years before in a class containing 50 pupils, my position in class is described as ‘A’ – and the teacher’s remark was: ‘Elizabeth has ability but at times she is somewhat inattentive.’ The year after that I got 231/250, and the remark was: ‘Highly intelligent and makes a great effort at examination times. With greater effort throughout the year Elizabeth would do still better.’

It was as though they were conditioned to give only faint praise to reduce the risk of pupils becoming big-headed.

By the time I moved to the Grammar School, remarks are generally encouraging – ‘works with interest,’ ‘capable of good work,’ but ‘concentration’ is still an issue. It was so hard in a class of 38 girls not to chat to your friend across the aisle, even if it did earn you a conduct mark and thus cause you to bring disgrace to your school House when these things were totted up at the end of each term.

The remarks that interest me most looking back, are those for ‘Physical Exercises.’ (gymnastics; navy knickers and white vest, netball: navy knickers and white Aertex shirt, Hockey: maroon knee length shorts). These remarks include: ‘needs to work more energetically, has done some good work this term, must always try her hardest, improved, steady progress, a pleasing worker, Elizabeth plays hard but her poor footwork is holding back progress, good progress, a pleasant and reliable worker and should do well.’ (At what?)

To be fair to Park High School for Girls, they gave me a good send off from the 6th form with words and phrases such as:

Given her best to her studies
Mature attitude
Willing service to the school
Responsible girl, etc.

However upon my arrival at Leeds University that October, I was pitched into a fog of doubt and ignorance when my first essay came back with no comments and simply a pencil mark on the bottom which I learned later was the Greek letter ‘gama’.

But compared to my school reports, the Adjudicator’s reports I have from a couple of Music festivals where I played the piano, show clearly why I did not go on to become a famous concert pianist.

‘The sustained notes in Section 2 are important, you must hold them and balance the underpart against them. But it is quite promising playing with some life.’ (My italics.) Mark? – 78%

‘Tonally you were content with one level. Rhythmically it was rather square. Throughout one was looking for more grace and a brighter colouring’ Mark? 82% !

When I became a teacher, report writing became a termly chore. At my first school, Heckmondwike Grammar, much merriment was to be had around the large staffroom table over suggestions that various staff members made as to what could be written about particular pupils – ‘Who is Bates Junior?’, ’Too idle to shiver when cold’, ‘She uses all her limited ability to conserve her energy’, etc.

But by the end of my teaching career we were told that only positive statements could be made in writing references for university and college applications; in fact all our geese were swans! This did result in some very brief statements like: ’So and so attended Greenhead College – occasionally.’ Any university admissions officer worth his or her salt would see through that one!

Looking back, much of this happened in the 50’s and 60’s and was very much of its time. My parents were very orthodox, conventional and law-abiding and they took whatever the school said as gospel. I do sometimes wonder what happened to one class mate, Horace Tipping. When there were 48 in the primary school class, we sat in order of achievement. I was never number one, but often 2, 3, or 4. Horace was always 48. When we moved desks every fortnight to our new positions, the teacher would say: ‘It’s alright, Horace, you stay where you are.’

In the folder where I found my old reports, I also found a 1975 letter from the head of West Park High School in Leeds where I taught for two years before leaving to have a baby. This is the kind of ‘report’ everyone who works hard and does their best deserves!

‘I must let you know how very much we have benefited by having you on our staff, even for a short time. It is not often we are able to get this rare combination of maturity, adaptability and good humour which you brought to West Park, and we do thank you for it.’

Compare and contrast that with: ‘Impetuosity which results in carelessness is the main drawback.’


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