Politically Correct Blandness in School Reports

Thu, Jul 16, 2009

Personal Writing Journey

Politically Correct Blandness in School Reports

We live in interesting times. Although there remain warzones out there, and we, as a world, have many responsibilities and challenges towards our ecosystems, poverty and our economies, in our everyday lives, attempts to be “politically correct” have severe consequences, even to the way we write a school report.

Last night in Second Life I was talking to another female, and she asked me about writing or being a writer a lot, my writing intrigued her. However, she somehow also equated the rebel in me to also being linked to that of being a writer. We were talking about business ethics and other political matters when she came up with the following -

‘Writers are anarchists’ she said.

I denied this, suggesting my own assertiveness and rebellions came from my own upbringing and experiences in corporate life.

‘Writing is easy, it’s just words. Outside of those, more can be seen by actions rather than markings on paper’.

At least I said the first sentence above, in response. I was less a philosophist on the next point about actions.

Of course, we have people like Salmon Rushdie to realise the power that simple words can indeed have.

And we have the general everyday misuse of them to remind us of how these times are disempowering not only our words but our lives.

The School Report

This week my six year old daughter arrived home with her end of school year written report. The parents and children had been awaiting these for weeks. But the big excitement expressed by most of those kids, and parents, was not about the reports, but by the additional information of what class and teacher they would have next school year, after the summer school holidays.

Reports at our school are dismissed by parents and children alike.

The school is, by all accounts, a good one. Here in Britain, we have league tables for schools, and local authority assessments. My daughter’s school is a good one by those statistics, and there are many from local villages who travel some distance to get their children into it.

However, political correctness has caused a blandness to many events and communications from the school itself. There are no competitive school sports days for instance – nobody can be allowed to experience losing, so everybody is a winner. To achieve that, students are put into teams, and competitive sports such as running are a big no-no. There are winners of course, but there are teams of kids who are not quite winners, but nobody is saying that.

During the year, my daughter was put onto a special list of students with an artistic talent. She would supposedly be given some additional opportunities to draw out that talent. That’s not happened, unfortunately. And the whole thing was discussed with us in such a clandestine way. No other student would be allowed to know that my daughter was being given special treatment to draw out a positive talent, nor would any other parents hear of it. The same can be said of those students who have special tutoring in standard subjects to help them progress, of course. That, too, is something not spoken about, but done covertly. So, we are left with knowledge of only the average. This would not be a huge thing, if only it were at least documented in the end of year report.

Sadly, my daughter’s report doesn’t even mention the art-skills, nor any other assessments of her subject achievements and skills. The parent-teacher discussion appears almost to be a figment of my and my husband’s imagination.

My daughter’s class has a range of students with a range of aptitudes towards learning. They are broken onto different tables and for some curriculum lessons, given different work. The parents and kids are never told what the tables mean, but eventually they all work out that the yellow table means students are less capable than, say, the green table, and the blue table is for kids who are really good.

My daughter’s tablemates arrive home with spelling words and homework which are tough – at her age I wouldn’t have been capable of doing some of it. There are spelling words in there which a fifteen year old might struggle with. The other tables are given much easier homework and spelling words to learn and do. Both lots are designed to challenge and teach the students at their appropriate levels. Both are marked out of ten, and the marks noted, but not the level of work given.

Both lots of children – those on the yellow and the blue tables – progress and learn. But it’s like comparing apples with pears. Without an ability to say so and so is top of his class, or George is one of the worst at grasping the intricacies of spelling “cat”, or Betsy has a 15 year old’s capability of spelling, or Juniper has a natural aptitude towards writing, but still has problems with backwards “c’s”; both sets of parents have nothing to go on for what to really celebrate, and what to work towards.

In society’s efforts to be fair to all, we may have created a culture where nobody is compared with somebody else, and where progress but not actual outcomes is the accepted norm.

Consequently, my daughter’s report reads like a bland list of ‘dones’ during the past couple of months rather than a round up of a whole school year. And it’s all about progress, but not goals or successes.

The report format is unhelpful as it is. There isn’t even a title page giving the year, class or teacher’s name. As a historical record, in twenty or thirty years time the report won’t give any hint of my daughter attending such and such a class at what age, and what school. It doesn’t show her skills, talents, and outright successes over her school year. Nor does it give any kind of rating or grade, nor use words which could be used to compare some kind of level of what good work is compared to not good work. Working has become the expectation, but working for what is my question.

There are many parents out there who celebrate good reports with some kind of reward for their hard-working child. Presented by such impersonal blandness as this list of activities, I have nothing to go on to suggest it has been a good or excellent report. I know it should be, as I’ve been told that previously in discussions with the teacher, but as documented evidence, there is nothing to suggest the personal of my daughter in her school report this year.

In the school’s attempt to be fair and encouraging to all it’s students, it now lists the mundane as progress. I would estimate that as all 22 pupils in my daughter’s class all went through the same lesson plans, at whatever capability that they had, then all of them have very very similar good reports, showing “progress”. And all of them will have an impersonal comment by the teacher and head teacher on the back of it, designed to be encouraging and positive – “It is nice to see such progress. Keep up the good work”.

Some Words Would Have Helped

The teacher could well have made the report a little better with a more personal choice of words, but she is a newly trained teacher, and this was her first ever set of report writes, and she was simply following the format of the document template and coaching given to her. However, she never evoked any kind of personal relationship with my daughter in the report, and this goes counter to our parent-teacher discussions during the year. For my daughter, a better choice of words, and the simple use of some adjectives might have done the trick to document a year’s worth of high achievements.

As parents we were contracted by the school to ensure goals set were achieved. Our daughter did achieve those over the year, and many more also. Each time she achieved them, she was set more – and more, and more. It was hard work, but none of that is recognised within the blandness that is a progress-centric report.

The Outcome

Why are reports at the school so easily dismissed by most of the parents I chat with?

‘They’re always good and positive,aren’t they? I get the same every year, so I just stopped really expecting anything else.’

‘They don’t really say anything specific.’

‘Oh yeah, I already knew what they did, anyway…’

‘Well, it’s just a short paragraph saying a few things about what they did, really, on each subject.’

What they did, rather than how they did it.

My Response

Bring back those embarrassing sarcastic or glowing reports of a less correct age, where teachers commented on Watson’s dietary habits, or Tim’s skill in paper aeroplane design or how lazy Jennifer is when it comes to rounding off her letter g’s but she’s top of her class at cricket, and on the school team for that. Where teachers suggested little Robbie Williams has absolutely no musical talent, but is a great clown in the class. Where little Stevie King had no ability to form full sentences, but showed a wonderful imagination and preoccupation in conceiving of, planning and instigating some dirty tricks on his suffering classmates.

  • Bring back terms like ‘skill’, ‘talent’, ‘challenge’, ‘success’, even ‘failure’ or ‘tried hard’ or ‘disinterested’. Progress is not a simile for these.
  • Use words like ‘bad’, ‘excellent’, ‘wonderful’, ‘fantastic’, ‘poor’, ‘exceptional’, ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ comparatives where appropriate. Good is not a simile for these.

In times to come, I want to be able to celebrate – in words – my daughter’s successes, and work on those things she is less competent at. I am not so het up about that of her class progress. Let them achieve in their own way. Don’t let political blandness turn this nation into a bunch of people progressing somewhere but never getting there.

Putting words into action, we left some slightly negative feedback on the report itself as a comment. Noticeably, the school asks for a signature back to say that we’ve received the report and nothing more – it used to be whether you agreed with it, or wanted to have a discussion with the teacher over the contents. Not anymore.

I’m sure we are going to pay for that feedback, however, and I look forward to our progress.

Image Credit : report image by Trois Tetes, Flickr, Creative Commons.

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This post was written by:

Michelle - who has written 262 posts on Juiced On Writing.

Michelle Thompson is building a career in both non-fiction and fiction writing. She's blogged for several years, and has previously written for arts, hobby and blogging themed magazines and websites. Her current work involves writing for some group blogs, pursuing a Second Life, and freelancing for some Second Life magazines. In fiction, Michelle is currently working on her second and third novels.

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One Response to “Politically Correct Blandness in School Reports”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    I agree. My response was to turn my son’s (long, bland, vague) report into a poem: #2009/07/harry-has-uses.html

    My son ‘kind of’ won his race on Sports Day, only it wasn’t really a race.

    I think his teacher has so many boxes to tick and standards to measure that she doesn’t have time to notice the unique little individuals (all 30 of them). Tough job.

    Our kids are going to have comprehensively documented progress that means nothing at all.