Mark Palmer

They can’t handle the truth

Why today’s teachers pull their punches in school reports and at parents’ evenings

They can’t handle the truth
Text settings

Every now and again I ask my daughter, who is a primary school teacher, if she is free for a curry after work. And almost always she replies that she can’t, as she has a ‘parents’ night’.

Now, either she has become lazy in her excuses for not wanting to see me, or her school organises a great number of parents’ nights. Hoping it might be the latter, I consulted a friend called Lucy, a teacher at a primary near Guildford in Surrey.

She said it was quite normal to have at least one parents’ night per term, plus two or even three ‘parents’ workshops’. These workshops are dedicated to specific themes such as ‘how to support your children’s homework’ or ‘how to support your child’s literacy development.’ These usually happen at 6 p.m. on a weeknight and are well attended, I am told. But I get the impression that they are enjoyed more by the parents than the teachers, and it does make me wonder whether they are strictly necessary. The emphasis, Lucy told me, is more on making sure the parents are supportive of the school than showing them how they can be more supportive of their children.

As with so many other professions, this means that expectations have to be managed as a kind of defence mechanism. In this case, it’s the expectations of parents who are desperate for their children to do well and, understandably, want a steer about their prospects. But, of course, there’s more to it than that.

For starters, parents aren’t keen to hear the truth, and even if they were given the hard facts about their child’s complete failure to show any interest in his or her sums, would they accept it? Lucy tells me that a slip is included with the reports that go out at the end of the summer term. This is for parents to fill in and send back if they feel anything in the report is unfair — or, presumably, if they want to complain about the teacher. If we continue like this, parents will soon be producing reports on the teachers.

That’s why those ten-minute ‘Meet the Teachers’ sessions can be such a charade. No teacher in modern Britain is going to say that Tabitha needs someone to read her the riot act about her attitude or that she’s disruptive in the class and in danger of having to repeat a year, suffering all the indignity that comes with it.

Instead, Tabitha’s parents will be told that she is ‘lively in class’. Freddy, meanwhile, who is struggling to read and can still barely write his name will be described as a ‘lovely chap, who is very popular with the rest of the class’.

It wasn’t always quite so sugar-coated. Shortly before my mother died she handed over all of my school reports. They do not always make for happy reading. But what strikes me is how different they are in tone to the 21st-century variety. For example, my housemaster at one point wrote that I was prone to a ‘frenzied, hollow tone of sociability’ to which he ‘took great exception’. In other words, he could not abide me — and I can assure you the feeling was mutual. But at least we both knew where we stood and with a little diplomacy here, compromise there, we soon found ways to repair the relationship. My Spanish teacher said that ‘cheerful chappy Palmer could never be accused of overwork’ and my English teacher at O-level said I was a ‘slick performer who never failed to cover reams of paper in his disgusting handwriting’. Guilty as charged, m’lud — and my handwriting is still appalling.

Lucy says she has to be far more diplomatic than my teachers were. Ben ‘knows the behavioural expectations of the school but sometimes chooses not to follow them’ is one of her ways of avoiding the obvious conclusion that Ben is a bit of a nightmare. Catherine ‘sometimes finds it difficult to listen to others, while is always keen to express her own views’ must be code for Catherine’s lust for power and enjoyment for lording it over others.

Tom Dawson, headmaster of Sunningdale, the all-boys Berkshire prep, agrees that the tone of reports has changed significantly from 20 or 30 years ago.

‘They tend to be far more bland and therefore safer and perhaps less individual as a result,’ he says. ‘Because there is so much more regular contact between teachers and parents, you don’t want to encourage a barrage of emails from parents who might think the report has been unfair. And if we do write a negative report, we make sure that it does not come as a surprise. Reports are more of a summary than a red flag.’

Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more effective.