Why we need to promote failure

TES, 11.03.16, many schools are afraid to encourage pupils to take risks, but children learn and grow through failing writes HMC member Keith Budge, headmaster of leading independent Bedales Schools.

It wasn’t so long ago that the education secretary Nicky Morgan announced funding for state school activities that would instil “character, resilience and grit” in our young people, to guard against dire warnings of a wellbeing “time bomb”. Of course, we want our young people to leave school with these attributes and to be able to thrive in the world, and it is widely and quite rightly accepted that schools must be a major part of the solution to this concern. However, should we not be asking whether our schools – or rather our approach to schooling as a whole – also contribute to the problem?

According to a recent Demos publication – “Mind Over Matter” – pupils in the UK lose confidence and are less happy as they move through the school system, and are less likely to believe that their teachers think that they will be successful; while a third of final-year pupils believe that their school is focused on preparing them to succeed only in exams, rather than in life.

Leaving aside the question as to whether examinations used in isolation are the best way to assess the individual’s facility with their subject, we must accept that preparing for and sitting them can be stressful.

Some believe that such stress is acceptable, and even desirable. In November, Morgan announced that seven-year-olds are to be subjected to more “robust and rigorous” tests, and that this should be considered a normal part of school life. Going further, Independent Schools Council chair Barnaby Lenon is of the view that the fear induced by exams is motivating and should, indeed, be considered a virtue (bit.ly/FearofExams).

I am less sure. As Lenon suggests, I think that some young people do thrive on the pressure of exams; others, however, do not. No less importantly, is it not the purpose of exams to be an appraisal of students’ knowledge of their subject – not of how they respond to fear?

The current direction of educational travel – with its focus on assessment by examination – is hardly likely to redress concerns around stress, and the fear of failure.

I don’t have a problem with failure – quite the opposite. Sometimes we need to fail, and to understand why we have failed, in order to learn and grow. One of the problems with examinations, of course, is that we don’t always get to understand our failures, learn from them and, importantly, remedy them.

I believe that failing should underpin an educational approach rather than being a disparate activity. I am worried, even shocked, when I hear anecdotes of other schools introducing “failure days” to teach students about failure in the abstract, rather than enabling them to learn through doing it.

At Bedales, we pursue an educational ethos that encourages students of all ages and all dispositions to take risks for their own sake. We encourage the view that getting things wrong is a necessary stepping stone to getting things right, and so it should not be feared. We also encourage students to find and pursue their own passions.

Our curriculum is designed explicitly to support this approach to education: in 2006, we introduced Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) to replace some non-core GCSEs. Designed by Bedales teachers, BACs give students more autonomy to explore their subjects, and report on what they have learned in appropriate ways. While terminal exams remain important, we see them as just one of a range of assessment methods.

Some other schools have followed suit – such as Sevenoaks – or expressed interest in what we are doing. A research programme conducted in partnership with Harvard University researchers confirms that BACs serve our educational aims very well indeed.

The collaborative approach to learning that underpins them, characterised by students exercising significant decision-making power, results in good learning. It enhances motivation and independence; choice over study is linked to a sense of competence and engagement.

Could such an approach, or even aspects of it, be adopted in maintained schools?

At a general level, the main obstacle would seem to lie in the direction of travel for education policy, and I see little incentive for schools to depart from the orthodoxy of a devotion to Ofsted inspection results and league table positions.

That said, I know many teachers who have learned how to satisfy the bean counters while getting on with what they consider to be our real calling – that of encouraging students to take safe risks and to catch them when they fall (see box, above, for conference details).

I imagine that I speak for other educators in suggesting that such work would be better undertaken as the central purpose of schooling, rather than a covert addendum to it.

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