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'Sets himself low standards which he fails to achieve'

James Thellusson's School’s Out: truants, troublemakers and teachers’ pets is officially out this week. This anthology of some of the worst school reports of the last 200 years was rated ’An utter delight’ by Oldie editor Harry Mount, and we hope you'll love it, too. Today on the blog, we're delighted to share a Q&A with the author himself.

How would you describe the book?

The perfect Christmas book for your downstairs loo. A celebration of the caustic wit of teachers. Proof that a bad school report is not the end of the world.


It’s an anthology of the worst school reports of famous artists, comics, writers, pop stars and politicians. People like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Margaret Thatcher are in it, but also Eric Ambler, David Bowie and Sir Billy Connolly. It’s about their academic ups and downs, canings, expulsions and the crap careers advice they got.

Why school reports?

My mother moved in with us (as readers of the Man in the Middle column will know). She brought with her many of my old school reports with her. One morning during the first covid lockdown we started reading them. They kindled a conversation between us which otherwise might not have happened.

I also liked the way the reports were written. I love limericks and I thought some reports had this compressed, caustic, witty feeling like a limerick. They make you wince and smile. Like the limerick, they’re a dying art form. So, I thought it would be interesting to collate some of them in one place.

Is it a history book?

No. But if you read between the lines there are some historical issues there: the glass ceiling facing women, the prejudice facing minorities, the dominance of the public schools across so many professions, especially politics.

And I included snippets about the history of British education, where they set off the biographical stories. For example, riots and rebellions were not uncommon at public schools in the 19th century so I included details of the riot at Rugby in 1797, which was only ended by the arrival of the local militia. That’s why the book is structured like a cross between ‘Schott’s Miscellany’ and Brewer’s ‘Rogues, villains and eccentrics’, both wonderful books.

You’ve included reports from people who aren’t celebrities. Why?

Because they’re funny and I wanted to have a broader range of source materials. For example:

A Mr Durnford, sent me a report of him as a young sub lieutenant in the Royal Navy which said: ‘A tired looking officer who gives the impression that the working day is interrupting his sex life.’

A woman, who insisted on remaining anonymous, sent me her French report which said: ‘She will start the second term unencumbered with any knowledge from the first’ which is going some.

A friend, who is now a French teacher, told me his O level report said: ‘A passing interest in French is not the same as an interest in passing French.’

These all seemed good examples of the snappy one sentence perfect prose put down which used to be quite common.

Do you have any favourites?

Yes. There’s a short section called ‘The Caustic Quill’, where I’ve put some of my favourites.

Jeffrey Barnard, the infamous columnist for Private Eye, was expelled because he was told he was ‘psychologically unsuited to public school life’, which he later regarded as the best compliment he ever received. Many might empathise with that.

Lord Grade sent me an utterly sweet report from his music teacher which said: ‘Grade is a valued member of the chapel choir but has a tendency to drift into a trance perhaps at the beauty of his own performance.’

Giles Fraser, the priest and broadcaster, was naughty at school. His head said: ‘Like a monkey, he is intent on displaying himself from his least attractive angle.' Which teacher would risk writing that now?

Boris Johnson’s is in there, too. Not because it is funny but because it is an example of a school report which is insightful about the person in a way which is biographically interesting.

His house master says: I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.’

This report is almost prophetic, isn’t it? Perhaps all PMs should have to submit their school reports for public scrutiny before being accepted into office?

If you could take only one of them to a dessert island, which would it be?

The line ‘He / she sets themselves low standards which they fail to live up to’ is a wonderful pithy and patronising put down. I’ve seen it so often I almost think it is an urban myth. But actually, the line I like best (at the moment) comes from Will Rogers, the actor and comedian, who once said: ‘You know everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.’

James Thellusson

James Thellusson