Schooled in self-esteem

A teacher’s proposal to ‘delete the word "fail" from the educational vocabulary’ was dismissed by ministers. But in practise, schools are already doing it.

Jack Jordan

Topics Politics

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When a motion was proposed to the UK Professional Association of Teachers’ (PAT) annual conference suggesting that ‘it is time to delete the word “fail” from the educational vocabulary and replace it with “deferred success”’, it was widely ridiculed in the media.

‘Shock and outrage’ was reported from ‘concerned business leaders, parents and head teachers’ (1). Liz Beattie, the retired primary school teacher who introduced the proposal, was given ‘nought out of 10’ by education secretary Ruth Kelly, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. But as it is announced that Scotland’s pass rate for its Higher exams has risen to 71.2 per cent this year (2), we should ask whether Beattie’s proposal was really that outlandish. In practise, the notion of failure is fast being eliminated from the educational system.

The devaluation of national qualifications has been going on for years. Less challenging GCSE and A-level syllabi mean that the majority of children leave school with at least some qualifications. With GCSEs in hairdressing and degree modules in David Beckham studies (3), everyone can rely on getting their own set of qualifications, no matter what their actual value. It is now reported that a mark as low as 22 per cent could be enough to pass a GCSE mathematics exam this year, while literacy and numeracy levels continue to drop. Of all GCSE exams taken in 2004, more than 15 percent were awarded an A or A* grade (4) – a figure that is expected to rise with 2005’s results. Employers are complaining of a growing number of functionally illiterate and innumerate school leavers, and over half of the country’s universities now provide remedial courses for first-year students.

A similar spirit is evident in other areas of school life. Some schools have put an end to competitive sports days, to stop children from being humiliated by defeat. New ‘activity-based’ sports days were introduced, since ‘taking part in traditional races can be difficult and often embarrassing for many children’. Parents were asked not to attend the 2003 sports day at Maney Hill Primary School, Sutton Coldfield, for fear of putting undue pressure on the children. Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, issued schools with a ‘Primary Sports Day Toolkit’, which contained activity cards for non-competitive games such as ‘beanbag pickup’ and ‘stranded sheep’. She argued for the need to ‘involve more pupils’ in each activity and to ‘make the experience enjoyable for all’ (5).

The view is that by ensuring that every pupil always feels included, and that his or her personal deficiencies are never pointed out, self-esteem develops. But can confidence in one’s own abilities ever be developed without having overcome the possibility of failure? What happens when the child first encounters barriers in the adult world?

Liz Beattie’s motion was an inevitable target for allegations of ‘political correctness gone mad’, but it is actually in line with mainstream educational policy. The rapid denunciation showed how nervous the educational establishment has become about this sort of charge. Liz Beattie admitted to realising that the wording of her proposal would be controversial, and hoped to launch a sensible debate about the subject. Instead, her suggestion was quashed by the education secretary on national radio days before it was due to be discussed at conference. Jean Gemell, the PAT’s general secretary, called this ‘unhelpful and unfortunate’, and complained: ‘it’s easy to look at the words of the debate motion and be simplistic about it.’

The idea that failure should be eradicated is based on the assumption that children are fragile creatures, who will collapse if challenged. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although failure can be a paralysing barrier to some in their educational progress, for the majority it should be treated as a formative process. It allows them to recognise and avoid the circumstances that led them to make mistakes. It also helps them to push their abilities as far as possible. If children are told that they can overcome their difficulties if they keep working at it, this is likely to urge them on. The alternative, to praise whatever they do, is likely to leave them faltering at the first hurdle. And that is far more demoralising.

Jack Jordan is a spiked intern, and completed his A-levels in 2004.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Thou shalt not fail, Evening Telegraph, 20 July 2005

(2) Exam results continue to improve, BBC News, 9 August 2005

(3) Beckham in degree course, BBC News, 29 March 2000

(4) GCSE results 2004 – by subject, Guardian, 26 August 2004

(5) Primary Sports Day Toolkit, on the Sport England website

(6) Prince Charles right or wrong?, BBC News, 19 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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