An own goal?

27th March 2015 at 00:00

A while back, one of my pupils came into the lesson and, with the careless air of a monarch waving from a carriage, dropped on to my desk a piece of paper, folded like a crisp packet in a pub. Expediency demanded I ignore it, but I wasn't surprised when, at the end of the lesson, he limp-walked to my desk as everyone filed out.

"Have you signed my report card, Sir?" he asked. Of course.

"Not yet," said I. "And thanks for letting me know you were on report. What was your first target?"

Quick as a shadow, he replied: "Top banter, Sir." Which was both funny and top banter, so he won on both counts.

Report cards are funny beasts. Slightly like homeopathy, they only work if the pupil believes in them. If they care even slightly about their standing as a student, their relationship with the school or the consequences of failing the report, then report cards can have a Jedi-like power. But if they don't, you'd be as well putting a JCB on report. As the British found when Gandhi couponed them back to Europe, if people refuse to do what you say, power is meaningless unless you're actually prepared to clobber them. Which is unlikely in a classroom that isn't Waterloo Road.

You occasionally find a report card with targets so odd you wonder if the pastoral staff were high when they devised them: mini-Asbos such as "Daniel must not stare out of the window", which is tough given that the more you tell someone not to do something like that, the more they are drawn to it. I rarely have the heart to bury a bullet in a student because they noticed a cloud.

Of course, report card edicts normally follow lines so well worn you could run a train on them: "obey all reasonable instructions" (note the gloriously redundant "reasonable", as if we have to be reminded that pupils don't, for example, have to push the Earth out of its orbit or invent a language); "complete all work"; "avoid distracting others"; "bring all equipment". These expectations are so low you weep that they have to be mentioned at all. But they frequently do, because some young minds occasionally need the implicit made explicit.

Even then you'll get kids playing Russian roulette with their time. They think that because they have met all three of their targets, any other felony falls outside their parole conditions. I once taught a pupil who set fire to a Lynx canister, but was outraged by my poor report of his behaviour because he had "finished all work to the best of his ability" - his one report condition. It's a queer way to express the adage that "everything not forbidden is permitted", but this is why some people aren't allowed scissors.

Yet report card targets seem like the Wisdom of Solomon when compared with some performance management targets for teachers, which are notionally more mature but in reality are often the wish list of a mad bureaucrat: "ensure all special educational needs children meet their targets", "ensure the pass mark of the cohort improves yearon-year by 5 per cent", and so on.

Actually, I prefer "top banter".

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