From the Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School
Occasional Paper No 11
I’m sure you will remember those dreaded school reports, with such epithets as, ‘Must work harder’, or ‘Could do better’. Perhaps like me you used to live in fear of taking home the reports (addressed to parents), and waiting for the inevitable judgements, and the possible consequent punishment. Steaming the envelopes open was always a possibility, but I never succeeded in fooling my parents. I must have been about 12 or 13 when I received a rather curt statement from my form master; ‘Harrod is a silly boy.’ My parents were not amused, and it did not do too much for my self-esteem either!
The Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School (LCHS) contains several reports from Lincoln Girls’ High School (LHS) and Lincoln School dating from1899 to 1958. Sadly we have no examples from Myle Cross Secondary Girls’ School or St Giles Secondary Boys’ School. If you discover any reports stashed away in the attic, please let us have copies. Your anonymity will of course be respected. This article will focus on how school reports have changed over time by describing a selection of the reports referred to above, and making comparisons with contemporary reports.
From a teacher’s perspective writing reports is a difficult and challenging task. Tom Bennett in his book Not Quite a Teacher writes that it is one of most teachers’ least favourite party games; reports are time-consuming, laborious and painstaking. They are also, however, a means of creating a channel of communication between home and school and these days they are a statutory requirement.
Some of those journalists who comment on school reports place teachers in the ‘Could do better’ category. Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, has written in The Daily Telegraph (April 2010) that he has been vastly entertained by letters sent to the newspaper on the subject. His favourite came from the history teacher who remarked; ‘When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number.’
The following is a selection of other ‘witticisms’ collected by Seldon:
‘French is a foreign language to Fowler.’
‘The improvement in his handwriting has revealed his inability to spell.’
‘At least his education hasn’t gone to his head.’
On the face of it these are amusing comments, but I find myself in total agreement with Marland (1970) who suggest that, ‘Irony, sarcasm and destructive wit are totally out of place in school reports.’ Seldon goes on to compare the historic ‘handwritten, ink-splodged reports of old’ with today’s reports which he claims are ‘word-processed and formulaic’, and ‘undifferentiated, copied and pasted’. He clearly prefers the former! Linda Jones writing in The Guardian in July 2007 even describes her daughter’s reports as ‘meaningless drivel’. As a former teacher I naturally find myself fiercely defensive of my profession, and dismissive of such unhelpful generalisations. The sport of teacher-bashing is to be expected from some of the tabloids, but such highly subjective and tendentious statements are unworthy of the so-called ‘quality’ newspapers. No doubt readers will judge for themselves from their own experience, and from the examples given below.
The reports held in the Garton Archive from LHS cover the dates 1899 to 1958, and are signed by three different, but equally eminent headmistresses, Miss Agnes Body (the School’s first headmistress 1893-1900), Miss Lucie Savill (1910-1943) and Miss IV Cleave (1964-1970). There are all remarkably similar in that, for each subject, the comments on a term’s of a year’s work generally contain no more than one or two words, and give no indication of how the pupils might work to improve their standards. Marland (1970) calls them ‘…perfunctory phrases of vague generalisation’. The following are typical examples: ‘Good’; ‘Good on the whole’; Fairly good’; ‘Quite good’; ‘Fair’; ‘Very fair’. How helpful are those ‘handwritten, ink-splodged’ remarks? In the 1958 report, perhaps influenced by Miss Cleave’s leadership, a little more elaboration is added but with the same blandness and lack of constructive advice: ‘Fair. Her work is uneven, but she is making progress’; ‘Fairly good. She does not always make enough effort’. Thus, typical reports consisted of brief comparative judgements on a termly, half-yearly or yearly basis. The problem with a comparative statement, such as, ‘Could do better’, is that it raises questions such as, ‘Better than whom, or what?’ Marland (1970) goes on to argue that such broad moral exhortation seems a disappointing substitute for the professional art of pinpointing remedial steps. A fascinating report from LHS in the year 1899 is appended (see Fig 1 below). This also provides an interesting insight into the curriculum of the late 19th century. Pride of place was given to HolyScripture,followed byHistory,Literature,Composition,Scripture, Reading,Recitation and Writing. Grammar,
Curiously this was followed by a separate heading for English. Geography, Arithmetic, Euclid (Geometry) and Algebra were next in the sequence, and the list concluded with French, Latin, Music, Theory, Drawing and Needlework. On Blanche Grey Hill’s report not all the subjects have been filled in, and a general comment ‘Good’ applies to English. Science has been crossed out for some reason, and the word ‘percentage’ is written as ‘Per Centage’. Could this have been a misprint, or is this an example of how language changes over time?
The reports from Lincoln School during the 1950s contain similar one-word adjectives, or short phrases such as, ‘Good’; ‘Good work and progress’; ‘Good, steady progress’; ‘Good, keen work’, etc. (see Fig 2 below). The one sixth form report, although peppered with similar bland and unhelpful comments, does occasionally break out into fully-formed syntax:
‘His essays lack depth but he has ideas and is beginning to express them quite well’; ‘Diligent study and wide reading have given him increasing understanding. I hope to see this rewarded in the examination’.
However, once again these descriptive judgements fail to offer any advice on how the pupils might improve their work. As Marland (1970) puts it, ‘…the vast majority of schools are plodding through a regular ritual in a time-honoured way.’ These reports also provide an insight into the curriculum at Lincoln School during the 1950s. English, History, Geography and Scripture lead the way, followed by the languages French, Latin, Greek, Spanish and German (I don’t recall German being taught). Next came Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, with Art, Handicraft and Physical Training concluding the list. Note that the girls did Needlework while the boys did Handicraft, reflecting the social attitudes at the time. At the foot of the report there was the heading, ‘Place in Form’, or ‘Form Order’. Those readers who attended Lincoln School will no doubt recall the ceremonial reading by the Headmaster during assembly of the ‘Form Order’ for each form. I usually languished in mid-table at best, and only rarely aspired to a place in the upper echelons!
In addition to separate reports on each subject, there was usually a space at the foot of the report for a general comment, written either by the head teacher, the form teacher or both. Such comments appear to add little to the subject-related information other than to provide an overall summary of the term’s or year’s work. Here are two typical examples from those stored in the Garton Archive: ‘She has done a satisfactory term’s work, which is always neat and thoughtful’; ‘He has worked well, and in work there is hope’.
We are particularly fortunate to have two complete sets of reports on two pupils who attended LHS and Lincoln School respectively during the 1940s. The pupils later married and still live in Lincoln, and I am grateful to them for generously donating the documents to the Garton Archive. Close scrutiny of the reports shows a similar pattern to the one described above, including additional elaborative comments as the two entered the Sixth Form, although the work of the young lady was clearly hampered to some extent by her ‘impetuosity’, ‘impulsiveness’ and ‘irresponsibility’! However these personality traits clearly didn’t do her much harm as, following a degree in modern languages, she went on to teach at both LHS and LCHS! The young gentleman, on the other hand, was described as a ‘good, steady worker, if a little slow at times’. Well, they do say that opposites attract! (The author has received permission to publish the above paragraph!)
There is one report in the Garton Archive on a pupil at LHS which dates back to 1957/8. The report was apparently delivered by the Royal Mail to her home address on 5th July 1996, thirty-eight years late!
By contrast, present day practices in report writing are designed to give parents (for whom reports are largely written) some idea of what has been studied, an indication of their children’s strengths, and more significantly a set of targets to improve their work, and in the best cases strategies for achieving them. As such they are ‘remedial’ in the sense that advice is given on how improvements may be made. At Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School, word-processed booklets are prepared, with Form Tutor and Head of Year comments on pupils, and a detailed section on each area of the curriculum completed by the subject teachers. The adjoining typical example is a transcript from a recent report on a pupil’s work and progress in Spanish. I think you will agree that the comments are positive, encouraging and clearly written, and that constructive advice is given on how to improve work through appropriate targets. The student’s name has been changed to preserve her anonymity.
I have been very happy with the start that ‘Sophie’ has made to the AS course. She is a serious and committed student with an excellent work ethic though I don’t feel that I have really got to know her as she tends to keep herself to herself. It has been pleasing to see her take part in class work, at times with confidence, though it would be nice to see her get more involved voluntarily. She is always fully prepared for the lesson and completes all homework tasks set. She works well both individually and in a group situation though she seems to be happier in smaller groups. Her grasp of grammar is good as is her knowledge of vocabulary. She should continue to ensure that she is in contact as much as possible with Spanish in her free time by using the internet, watching television and reading in Spanish. It will also help her to be able to express her personal point of view in discussion about a variety of different topics.
Targets for Improvement
She should continue to push herself by using more complex vocabulary and grammar which we have covered in her written work. She should make full use of resources such as the internet, magazines and DVDs to enhance her understanding and knowledge of the language. She should make preparation for the oral exam an absolute priority.
This approach is a far-cry from the ‘handwritten ink-splodged’ epithets of yesteryear, and provides at least some objective evidence of the improvement in standards of report-writing characteristic of most secondary schools today.
All publications from the Archive may be accessed on the LCHS website under ‘Misc/School Archive’
Marland, M in Green & Marland (1970) School Reports. A Home and School Council Working Paper
The Daily Telegraph 5 April 2010. Article by Anthony Seldon
Please see Figures 1 and 2 below