It is the end of term and parents will be studying their children's school reports with varying emotions. The traditional school report was a rich source of entertainment as teachers vied to express their opinion in as few caustic words as possible. I owe many of the quotes to Anthony Seldon, who is the Master of Wellington College in Berkshire.[1] It is noteworthy that the English so value succinctness that the Head Teacher of a posh private school is merely called the Master. The Head Teacher of a posh girl's school is not the Mistress. My interest in pithy school reports was first piqued by a biology report received by my sister, which merely said, ‘Her enthusiasm exceeds her accuracy’. She became a fine English and drama teacher, but I never intend to let my sister forget those five words that so effectively dismissed her grasp of biological theory.

The most articulate history report quoted by Seldon was: ‘When the workers of the world unite, it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to consider himself among their number’. One history teacher wrote, ‘Henry Ford once said history is bunk. Yours most certainly is’. However, there was greater economy of words in the history report, ‘For this pupil all Ages are Dark’. However, I have yet to hear of a more succinct report than the euphemistic ‘Andrew's trying’.

When I started high school, the fierce woodwork teacher used technical terms unknown to me and I was too afraid to ask the meaning. To this day, my attempts at carpentry are not renowned for their neatness or finish. I, therefore, have immense sympathy for the boy whose teacher wrote, ‘Give him the job and he will finish the tools’. I can at least score some ecological points, like John, whose teacher wrote, ‘The tropical forests are safe when John enters the woodwork room, for his projects are small and progress is slow’.

Many school reports are critical of handwriting, although it was amusing to read, ‘The improvement in his hand-writing has revealed his inability to spell’. As far as overall performance is concerned, there can be few reports more damning than, ‘Thomas sets himself a remarkably low standard which he consistently fails to maintain’. I winced at the story of the parent and teacher meeting after the teacher had written on a boy's school report, ‘Your son does not have the brains of a cockroach’. The parents complained to the teacher that this was unfair, whereupon the teacher took the report and crossed out the word ‘not’.

The teacher is not always right. Historically, there can have been few school reports that were more open to retrospective ridicule than the report written by a science teacher from Eton School about a 15-year-old pupil saying, ‘I believe G has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can't learn simple biological facts he would have no chance doing the work of a specialist …’ That year, G came bottom of 250 biology students. G is Sir John Gurdon, who in 1962 as an Oxford University postdoctoral researcher in zoology tested his hypothesis about pluripotential stem cells by replacing the nucleus of a frog's egg with the nucleus of a tadpole's intestinal cell. The egg developed into a functional cloned tadpole and Gurdon was later able to clone adult frogs. In 2012, Gurdon was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for proving that adult cells can be reprogrammed and grown into different tissues. If you are a parent whose child received a particularly scathing school report, you can take solace in the thought that the teacher may be as wrong as Gurdon's science teacher.


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  2. Reference
  • 1
    Seldon A. When school reports were a work of art. Sydney Morning Herald 2011; 21 Feb, 15.