Published by The Telegraph on 25/08/16
Ah GCSE results’ day. For many young people, today is the first time they’ve been exposed to the possibility of success and, of course, failure.
While some will be celebrating today, a number of pupils will be disappointed with their results. But rather than facing up to the repercussions of doing badly, many of these students will have been deluged with titbits of meaningless sympathy: “It’s good that you tried!”, “It’s not the end of the world!”, “There’s no such thing as a failure!”.
Of course, getting crap results in your GCSE exams isn’t the end of the world, and a disappointing outcome shouldn’t dissuade others from attempting to do well. But the suggestion that failure is illusory – a nasty ghost confined to tales of dragons and magic – is wrong.
Failure is real. Even when it’s the result of poorly crafted exams taken by fresh-faced 16-year-olds.
Unfortunately, our aversion to labelling school exam results as a “failure” has become widespread. We’re even told failing might be a good thing. As Jeremy Clarkson tweeted on A Level results’ day: “If your A level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”
It would be inaccurate to suggest you have to do well in your GCSEs to succeed in life. But for most people, embracing failure as a positive doesn’t always end well. Just look at Jeremy Clarkson.
Of course GCSEs aren’t perfect, and it’s completely reasonable to criticise their methods of testing, particularly when the arts are crudely treated as something quantifiable. But failing flawed examinations doesn’t automatically translate to an act of careless genius – a disappointing result should still be seen for what it is. After all, writing an English Language exam in the style of E. E. Cummings isn’t necessarily going to bag you a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Worryingly, this tendency to embrace failure has become normalised within our education system. Now, pupils have the opportunity to repeatedly retake exams they did poorly in. And while this does reduce the possibility of eventual failure, it ultimately degrades the meaning of success.
Indeed our fear of failure became most apparent in our vitriolic reaction to Michael Gove’s proposed changes to GCSEs back in 2013. Instead of possibly considering the benefits of 16-year-olds studying Shakespeare, we were all too quick to dismiss his alterations as “too difficult”.
Crucially, this blasé attitude to failure is not the fault of students. And while a proportion of pupils do suffer from dismal teaching methods, excusing failure on these grounds forgets that our inclination to embrace poor results isn’t founded on an educational premise, but a cultural one.
Engrained within our society, there is a continuing tendency to regard stretching the minds of young people as some kind of cultural crime. We are reminded to do our utmost to avoid making children stressed. At times, education is even viewed as the cause of mental health issues, where an admittance of failure is equated with having permanently affected a child’s mental well-being.
Apparently the number of GCSE students calling ChildLine about stress has risen by 20 per cent this year. And this association of education with vulnerability and exemption from failure extends beyond childhood onto university campuses, where students are pushed to embrace “safe spaces” – insular areas where students refuse to hear opinions that might render their own as incorrect.
In the grand scheme of things, failing a few GCSEs really isn’t the end if the world. But instead of helping young people to learn to manage the experience of failure, society evades the issue. It is crucial that we stop this. For, after all the exams are sat and passed, none of us can really understand the true meaning of success unless we have looked failure in the eye and felt its accompanying pain.