What is ‘failure’?

16 Feb

6 February 2012 (updated below)

An independent girls' school is holding a "Failure Week" to teach pupils to embrace risk, build resilience and learn from their mistakes.

(Interestingly, the media, the BBC in this case, generally seem to refer to independent schools as "top girls'/boys' school " something they rarely, if ever, seem to do with successful state schools. "Top" invariably seems to be journalistic shorthand for "private", which must say something about the nature of 'success'.)

The idea behind the ''Failure Week' at Wimbledon High School is to:

"demystify the word and encourage the girls to put 'failure' into context and encourage them to face it head on and learn from it hence calling it what it is and not dressing it up."

The Week includes:

  • "assemblies focusing on the subject of failure, with examples of successful people, including famous names and teachers, who have ‘failed' along the way;
  • activities designed to assess how students feel about failure
  • tutors discussing the merits of failure, sharing a 'failure' they faced in their lives with their students and discussing how they came through it;
  • "explorations of the negative side of 'not failing'; the importance of having a go and risking failure;
  • "emphasis on the pastoral network of support that underpins school life and can help when things go wrong; and
  • "Encouraging parents to discuss any 'failures' they have had with their daughters and what they learnt from them."

Headmistress Heather Hanbury believes that success and satisfaction in life can come from "daring to fail and daring to get it wrong".

Perhaps this is an important life skill and an argument for the inclusion of philosophy in the curriculum.

But what is "failure"?

Education is currently being pulled in different directions by competing visions but currently pursues the principle of 'success' or 'failure' in academic examinations in subjects that are included in the narrow and pointless EBacc to the detriment of the vocational . This system of exam-based 'accountability' encourages teaching to the test rather than the teaching of a broad and balanced education. It is for the benefit of the government, rather than for providing information for parents and taxpayers.

As another independent school headteacher, Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, points out: "schools should develop children's character, not just their ability to pass exams":

" .. schools of all kinds have become too much like exam factories, concentrating their energies on securing passes at A to C at GCSE level, and have given too little attention to the overall development of the child and their character (the scramble for results has also been at the cost of genuine learning and creative teaching). The government should embrace character-building and all-round education not as an alternative to academic attainment but as an essential adjunct of it. The opportunities open to those of independent education for wider enrichment should be available to all, regardless of school."

Schools are often caught in the crossfire between the competing forces of "elitism or all winning prizes" . The Prime Minster uses rhetoric such as:

"tough benchmarks for primary schools too. For the first time, unless sixty per cent of their pupils achieve the accepted level Level 4 in English and maths at Key Stage 2, they'll be judged to be failing."

Standards are rising but not every child is going to reach the standard of the average child. If all pupils reached the expected level that would mean that the bar had been set so low as to be useless. As we've pointed out before, do you lower standards, devaluing the qualification, or perform some miraculous transformation in pupil performance?

Back in 2005, when Voice was known as PAT (Professional Association of Teachers), members at the union's annual conference debated a members' motion that:

"Conference believes it is time to delete the word 'fail' from the educational vocabulary to be replaced with the concept of 'deferred success'."

The motion's proposer, Liz Beattie, commented that:

"failure is a fact of life of course it is impossible to write failure out of the picture. We have all experienced it Most of us cope perfectly sensibly with failing. We shrug and decide 'That isn't for me or we say 'that wasn't right let's have another try', or we decide to live with never being able to sing in tune. But some children can't do that."

As the motion's seconder, Wesley Paxton pointed out, we can have ambition but we have to be realistic:

"If you engage a builder to build a 5-foot wall and he only does it 4' 9″, you fetch him back. You don't demolish it and make him start all over again he simply lays another course of bricks to 'top it up'. But failing an exam especially if it involves repeating an entire year does demolish and make you start again. In contrast, BTEC for many years had the 'Refer' grade where, if you weren't quite good enough, you did a bit more until you reached the required standard, without repeating the whole lot.

"There is no virtue in doing anything twice in the pursuit of 'academic rigour' Elsewhere we applaud those who persevere, like marathon contestants who take days to complete. It's time we made the word 'fail' redundant and replaced it with 'please do a bit more'."

The motion was lost when a large majority of Conference delegates voted against it, and the union's policy that "recognises that pupils have differing abilities and learn at differing rates and that all individual achievement should be recognised" remained unchanged.

As Liz Beattie commented at the time "conference motions are often worded to stimulate debate and even disagreement". However, the motion did make a useful point about how we judge those that do not achieve success in exams. While the Prime Minister's speech above was referring to schools when he said "they'll be judged to be failing", the implication is that the pupils who have not 'achieved' "the accepted level" have 'failed' too.

To sum up.

Wimbledon High School wants its pupils to learn from their mistakes, to "put 'failure' into context and encourage them to face it head on and learn from it hence calling it what it is and not dressing it up".

The Prime Minister condemns those who have "failed".

Voice points out that not all children can 'succeed' in academic examinations, calling instead for a transformation of the system, with fewer exams and tests and greater use of ongoing teacher assessment, a greater range and type of subjects on offer to inspire pupils and parity between the vocational and academic.

Some Voice members 'failed', or did not succeed, in persuading their colleagues to remove the word 'fail' from the educational vocabulary.

Perhaps their success has been deferred after all as the debate about putting 'failure' in context continues.

Update: 16 February 2012

Earlier this month, we asked 'What is failure?' Now, according to The Daily Telegraph and The London Evening Standard, teachers in London are being given specialist training so they can help pupils to "manage personal setbacks and life pressures".

Dr Helen Wright, head of St Mary’s Calne school, Wiltshire, [and, although neither The Standard nor The Telegraph mentions it, President of the Girls' Schools Association 2011] is quoted, as saying that:

"'There is a danger that we wrap our children in cotton wool, we have become less tolerant of risk-taking'. Schools, she added, were banning the type of activities that increase pupils' resilience such as playing with conkers or in the snow. She said: 'If these silly rules persist, we will be bringing up a generation of fearful children'."

As we pointed out in a post in 2010:

"The media love a good 'health-and-safety-gone-mad' story such as the 'banned' games of conkers and protective eyewear for pupils These headlines are the all-too-familiar lines we read in the papers or hear in the pub 'it says in the paper elf and safety gone mad!' but all are exposed as myths by the Health and Safety Executive's excellent "Myth of the Month".

"What the media and politicians need to remember is that they bear some responsibility for the "cotton wool" being issued in the first place. If they want to see a bonfire of regulations then they should refrain from calling for the banning of bonfires and tighter regulations the next time there is accident and injury caused by one."

Again, in 2011:

"’Over-zealous schools ban British bulldog and conkers' when, only "According to [only] 29% of the 653 education staff surveyed, British bulldog has been banned in their school. While [just] 14% of staff said their school has banned pupils playing conkers and [just] nine per cent said leapfrog is banned."

"However, the reasons for banning them quoted actually sound necessary rather 'health and safety gone mad': 'A primary school teacher in England said: 'Apparently the main problem with conkers is that nut allergy sufferers are increasingly allergic to them.' And a teacher at a secondary school in England added: 'Bulldog is banned because of the number of broken bones it generates!'.

"Think of the alternative headlines: 'Children made sick and injured by the playground "games" their schools refuse to ban' 'British bulldog breaking bones in the playground. Why won't schools ban it?'"

Voice supports proportionate, rather than disproportionate, health and safety management. Reduced confidence and increased bureaucracy are the two factors that have led to fewer school trips in the recent past.

Do let us know your thoughts.

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7 Responses to “What is ‘failure’?”

  1. Wesley Paxton 06. Feb, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    What I did not say during the aforementioned debate in 2005 was to quote the age old proverb: “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again”. That specifically endorses the view that you must have another go, like the BTEC “refer” grade. I was surprised conference voted so overwhelmingly against it, and the media furore, which seemed to want the concept of “if you fail 1st time round, simply give up”. Then we had the entire comprehensive school concept that we had to destroy the 11+ so that NO-ONE was seen to “fail”. Quite frankly what conference delegates were saying by voting against the motion I am not quite sure, but it could be read as saying “we don’t want those who didn’t get it first time to have another chance, a fail is a fail is a fail”. That can’t be right? If we are wise, we learn from what we did not get quite right and build on that experience. This is just one of the things wrong with GCSE. It states 5 Grade Cs is worth more than 8 grade Ds. If I had coal central heating and I was offered a choice of 5 bags containing 50kg, or 8 with only 45kg, at the same total price I know what I would choose. But then when did much of education have any link with the “real” world?

    (Before someone corrects my grammar, "5 grade Cs" I took to be a "package", so the singular verb applies!!)

  2. Rachel Kerr 20. Feb, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Thought provoking piece. Interesting that the reality of girls and risk-taking is counter intuitive for many people. You might think that being in a co-ed environment would encourage girls to take more risks, but actually the opposite is true. Girls in single sex environments – free from stereotypical expectations (their own and other people’s!)- are more inclined to take risks. Without risk there is no failure. Without failure there is arguably no learning. And without learning there is no success.

    New research on this topic here: [www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0297.2011.02480.x/abstract]

    • Khaled 14. Jul, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

      I am absolutely soeckhd at the language used by the Daily Mail and Nasuwt.Young people being listened to is key to putting the massive errors of the past behind us, and allowing all children to have a happy and safe childhood. I completetly agree that in this day and age, empowering young people to have confidence, sense of belonging and shared responsibility within schools and communitites is essential.To believe that young people have more interest in how someone looks in comparison to adults shows a lack of understanding in young people. I work with a youth council, and I have found young people to be much more open and understanding, and able to see the real person than most adults we work along with.

  3. Richard Fraser 27. Jun, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    Also on this theme: [www.theperseschool.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/harry-potter-and-the-f-word]

  4. Richard Fraser 06. Dec, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Also: [www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9725022/Children-no-longer-allowed-to-fail-Tanya-Byron-warns.html]

  5. Richard Fraser 30. Apr, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    “Children ‘should be allowed to learn from own mistakes'”: [www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22338343], 30 April 2013

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