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Home > Culture and Society

Fear of failing

24 July 2005

It wouldn’t matter how messed up your life was (irrevocable health issues, the loss of loved ones and residence on Death Row aside), ten million pounds would probably get you back on your feet. If anything was going to allow you to start again, a windfall of those proportions would surely do the trick. Or so you’d think. And yet Michael Carroll didn’t manage it. Carroll was in all kinds of delinquent trouble when he won £9.7m on the National Lottery, and now look at him. On Sunday he was in the News of the World living up to his tabloid title of ‘King Chav’ in a witty Hello magazine spoof; on Monday he was taken into police custody on suspicion of breaking the terms of his latest Asbo - handed down last month when Carroll was found guilty of catapulting ball-bearings through the windows of over 30 cars and shops.

But the question we should perhaps be asking is this: Had Michael Carroll not been branded a failure at school, which he almost certainly was, would he still have evolved into the monumental cunt he is today? Hmmm. Well, let’s have a think.

Next Friday retired school teacher Liz Beattie, 68, will put forward a motion at the annual conference of the Professional Association of Teachers, moving that ‘it is time to delete the word “fail” from the educational vocabulary to be replaced with the concept of deferred success’. Beattie’s reasoning for what is, on the surface at least, a fairly idiotic and futile proposal, is what you’d expect. Tell kids they’ve failed and they may feel discouraged, they may give up on themselves, the prophecy may fulfil itself. ‘Failure is very hard to cope with,’ she says. ‘Eventually, if you experience enough of it, it stops you in your tracks… I'd rather tell kids that they have done jolly well, they worked really well, they have achieved that and that's brilliant. You can then say tomorrow we should try that – rather than just saying you've failed. I think we all need to succeed at something. You need encouragement rather than being told you haven't done very well.’


Of course there is much to be said for not telling a child who fails to complete a homework assignment to a satisfactory standard that he or she is a useless little bastard. And children should be shown that they are not coming up to academic scratch without making them feel humiliated or defeated. But telling kids who are failing that they’ve done ‘jolly well’ - although terribly sweet - might not provide the necessary incentive to actually do well.

Also, sadly, the problem with changing the word ‘failure’ to the words ‘deferred success’ solves nothing for the simple reason that in reality, it changes nothing. Even the thickest kid in school won’t be fooled by such a cheap linguistic makeover. You could invent another letter for it if you really wanted, call ‘success in a conical hat’ or simply hand all the other kids in the class a cigar. It wouldn’t matter. Those who’d likely be stigmatised by F-word would probably be equally stigmatised by whatever was to take its place.

There are other concerns with the proposal of course. The PCMD brigade – and there is actually a brigade of them now – might be wondering, if we do away with the word ‘failure’ today, what words will be phased out of the classroom tomorrow? Wrong? Late? No? They may have a point, but perhaps the major concern is that through fear of being overly brutal in their assessment, tomorrow’s teachers run the risk of not actually making tomorrow’s schoolchildren aware that they haven’t got a fucking clue what they’re doing. This may very well result in said schoolchildren going out into the world convinced that they are tremendously talented when in reality they are worse than useless. Although many of them will then go on to find nice work in politics and the media, many more will discover the truth, perhaps too late to successfully assimilate, that they are failures, and that they have nothing to offer society. ‘If only they’d told me at school that I was so wholly inept,’ they will sob. ‘I would have knuckled down and been good at something.’

Ms Beattie obviously means well, and we salute her for it, but on a realistic level, her proposal makes about as much sense as buying the thick kids a lottery ticket for every exam they fail. We might also venture at this point that kids who are discouraged by failure are far less of a problem than the ones who wear it like some sort of medal.

Millionaire Michael Carroll by the way, faces a prison sentence of up to five years. Some people it seems, were born to defer success.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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