Could do better (when famous)

15th November 2002 at 00:00
A terrible school report may well be the making of your most frustrating but talented pupils, Abi Newman reports

"IT would seem that Briers thinks he is running the school and not me. If this attitude persists, one of us will have to leave," reads the school report of actor Richard Briers, who shot to fame in the mid-70s with the BBC series The Good Life.

This is just one of many insights into the characters of the great and the good revealed in Catherine Hurley's compilation of school reports, Could Do Better.

It emerges that brilliance was often treated with caution. In the 1930s, the headmaster of Westminster school warned that actor Peter Ustinov's "great originality must be curbed at all costs".

Imagination was also treated scathingly. Actress Dame Judi Dench's headmaster wrote: "Judi would be a very good pupil if she lived in this world."

Other reports were more despairing. In 1970, comedian Stephen Fry's head said: "He has glaring faults and they have certainly glared at us this term." A year later, he wrote: "I have nothing more to say." Mr Fry was expelled the following year.

Sir Winston Churchill also had a turbulent school history. A secondary teacher at Harrow wrote: "He is so regular in his irregularity that I don't know what to do."

Equally damning was the remark made by poet Robert Graves's headmaster in 1914. He said: "Well, goodbye, Graves, and remember that your best friend is the wastepaper basket!"

In 1896, future prime minister, Clement Attlee, was urged to have greater humility: "His chief fault is that he is very self-opinionated," the report read.

But a poor report was not always a bad thing. If it was not for writer AA Milne's bad maths report, Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin might never have existed. His father abandoned hope, so Milne, aged 12, turned himself "to the lighter side of life and abandoned work".

However, some reports uncovered by Hurley were prophetic. Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman's stubbornness was recognised as an asset "when directed to sound ends", while John Lennon's headmaster said the great Beatles musician "might go far".

Baroness Thatcher's ambition and "unusual depth of understanding" were spotted when she was a teenager at Kestevan and Grantham Girls' school in the 1930s. And economist John Maynard Keynes, received high praise from Eton when he left for King's College, Cambridge in 1902: "I have rarely known any boy so clever, and yet so far removed of any trace of priggishness".

But American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt earned the most glowing praise while at an international school in Wimbledon in 1899. Her headteacher wrote: "As a pupil she is very satisfactory, but even that is of small account when you compare it with the perfect quality of her soul."

"Could Do Better, School Reports of the Great and Good", edited by Catherine Hurley. Published by Pocket Books with the Dyslexia Institute, pound;7.99 Leader, 26

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