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Home > Culture and Society

Fear of failing II: An English teacher writes

24 July 2005

Retired primary school teacher Liz Beattie has suggested that the word ‘fail’ should be removed from schools, like so much contaminated fish pie. ‘If children at an early age decide, “I can't do school, I can't learn to read or do this maths stuff”, they are losing an enormous part of their lives,’ said Beattie. ‘Some children who have a problem are being turned off the whole education process almost before they have embarked on it simply because failure is a thing they see quite a lot of.’ The motion itself, the wording of which Beattie has said she doesn’t necessarily agree with, booms: ‘Conference believes it is time to delete the word 'fail' from the educational vocabulary to be replaced with the concept of “deferred success”.’ Cue seismic outbreak of giggling at the back, and some of those fake farty-noises you make with your armpit.

Beattie does have a good point about the power of words, how quickly and permanently labels can stick, and how important it is not to plonk figurative dunce caps on our future hopes. Self-esteem is anyone’s most valuable resource, because most of the others you can acquire are useless without it. You suck up most of your ration before you’re ten, and start to really need it at twelve when your body starts to turn on you. Being dismissed as a failure too early or too often can create miserable little sods who grow up into bigger sods who make other people miserable. But failure, as a word and a concept, has been tossed around less and less lightly in recent years – there are all kinds of ways to sugar that particular bitter pill. N for Near-miss, U for Unclassified – in fact, one student I know was tickled pink that an erratic two years yielded A-Level results spelling ‘BUN’.

Of course you should discuss when someone hasn’t made the grade, come up to scratch, achieved the minimum standard. You can – and should – point out that failure doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t make you useless or worthless or hopeless. But failure is not an indication that success will follow, that you’ll catch your break next time – failure means you messed up now, though that doesn’t preclude you being successful in the future. Blurring the distinction between those two is as dodgy and potentially calamitous as that unidentified leak coming from the boys’ toilets.

The worst of it is that it opens the door for a bit of favourable grade-massage, giving those who persistently flunk a little more slack, and a little more, just to help them on their way. But coddling the foot-draggers at the bottom of the class can be to the detriment of the bright, well-behaved, eager students bouncing up and down going ‘mememememe’ whenever some horrid difficult question is asked. In theory there’s enough success to go round, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Start lowering the bar for everyone to step over, and somewhere at the top the brains start to sense their value – to the world and themselves – start to plummet. The idea is that they’ll take care of themselves, being so bright and all. But if more attention is paid to the sad-sack underachievers and pen-cap-pingers, the smarties start to feel a bit like it’s not really worth being clever and good if you’re more or less ignored. And what’s the use of working hard for your achievements if, relatively, the deferredly-successful get more props for being less good? Then they start to think ‘fuck it’, start to use the word ‘fuck’, and get a bit disillusioned, end up at third-rate ex-polytechnics, take dreary unfulfilling jobs, and die unloved in comfortable yet soulless semis with only their canaries to mourn them. I exaggerate, but the point remains. While I’m about it, those ex-polytechnics – rebranded as universities, so that people attending them could feel less like failures. Students still look down at almost every one, so it’s not such a big deal, but it does indicate that the idea of ‘deferred success’, if not the phrase, isn’t much newer than that creaky library computer.

All else aside, it may be vital to put a big red pen grimace next to the concept of deferred success, because once assimilated into the language and the culture, it could spread like wildfire. Imagine: producers and commissioners being able to justify their crappy ratings by saying ‘it’s deferred success, wait until the spectacular season finale, folks’; councils letting rubbish pile up in the streets but not, technically speaking, ‘failing’ to remove it; and politicians being able to declare with impunity that the missed targets weren’t really missed at all, and the figures will add up the next time we calculate them, and the occupation isn’t actually a disaster, it’s just never going to be declared a failure.

Oh wait.



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