Twenty years ago – or it might have been nineteen – a friend and I dropped by his parents’ antiques shop.

I liked the atmosphere, though perhaps not as much as when the building was devoted to selling fish and chips. Whenever I walked in the door, I always remembered that this was the place that I first saw a can of Vimto. For some reason that was important.

On this particular day, I got chatting to one of the customers. I think he was also an antiques dealer. It turned out that my grandfather had taught him art at Stamford School.

“Oh yes,” said the customer. “I remember Mr Douglas. He used to buy his cigarettes from my aunt’s pub. One evening he chased me home and he caught me by the neck of the blazer. I managed to wriggle out of it…”

I wasn’t surprised. Every former pupil I’d met had a similar story to tell.

“But the things I remember most,” continued this particular fellow, “are the school reports. There’s one I’ve kept, and it says, simply:

In darkness and in light, he is always with me.’

But was it true?

“Yes,” said my grandfather when I told him. “Bloody boy was always hanging around. Couldn’t shake him off at all.”

The art of report writing

Grandfather was probably the last of the great schoolmaster eccentrics, at least when it came to report writing. You see, I was a pupil at the same school only seven years after he retired. That meant I was taught by plenty of his former colleagues.

“It’s hard work writing reports,” one confided in me. “But when your grandfather was here, we’d wait until the reports came back – completed – to the staff room. And then we’d read his entries out one by one. They raised our spirits…”

A nice tradition to continue

I’ve been thinking about reports again, simply because I stumbled across this article by Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College (grandfather once taught there too – the day after he told his pupils to paint excerpts from the Beveridge Report on the classroom walls, he found a brush and a bucket of whitewash outside the door).

Seldon’s approach appeals to me because he takes the trouble to find out about every pupil before writing about them. But in an odd way, I think that’s something that (done well) the old-fashioned report-as-epitaph achieves brilliantly – it gave parents a flavour of who their child is, not what he (or she) has been doing.

There’s something very human about that, no matter how cruel it might sometimes appear.

And your own reports?

Dreadful. I’ll make them the subject of another post, complete with glossary. But the last report I ever got from the headmaster was printed, at an angle, in the final box on the card. It said:

I hope that he will be able to look back on his seven years here with some satisfaction and that he will take with him some tangible sign of success in the form of some good results. Certainly he leaves with our best wishes.

I’d been there five years…