Thursday, July 21, 2005

"Deferred Success"

The list of crazy euphemisms gets longer and longer. Now a primary school teacher want to do away with the concept of failure, and replace it with the concept of "deferred success". What a load of rubbish.

“Learning should be lifelong and it should be something that everybody knows they can do and knows they can have a bash at. I’d rather tell kids that they have done jolly well. You can then say, ‘Tomorrow we should try that’, rather than just saying, ‘You have failed’.”

Sure, I might agree with the first half of that last sentence. Encouragement and development is a vital part of education, and simply stigmatising people isn't going to help at all. But at the end of the day, if all we give out is praise, then the praise itself becomes worthless. It doesn't become a reward for good work, it just becomes accepted, and encourages self-satisfaction and complacency. At the end of the day, if work isn't good enough, it isn't good enough - and we need to tell our children that. Dressing it up in platitudes won't help.

I've always thought that the argument the Tories use about exams - "there's no point in an exam nobody fails" - to be simplistic and wrong. What matters about exams is that there is an agreed minimum standard, and that it is effectively graded so that whoever needs to use the qualification as a yardstick can take whatever grade he or she wants as a cut-off point. We are wrong to see passing or failing as the be-all and end-all in exams, especially state exams. Different people will, self-evidently, use the exam results for wildly different purposes, and so it is the gradation that is important, because you have a flexible yardstick, of far more utility.

When people try and write off the concept of failure totally, however, something is badly wrong. Yes, we should measure all kinds of achievement - but that doesn't mean that we should equate all kinds of achievement in, for example, a meaningless diploma. Nor should we pretend that people cannot fail. Success is not a guaranteed outcome. I can play cricket as much as I like, and I will never, ever, be as good as Shane Warne. I'll never play the violin like Nigel Kennedy. There's no harm in knowing that. Failure is part of learning our limits.