Failure is an option

Does the need for everyone to get a pass mark subvert the very essence of education, or is the best driver of success. success?

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With this year's intake at Blackburn College, principal Ian Clinton has begun what amounts to an extraordinary pound;1.75 million bet on his students' fortunes at A-level. He has offered them a guarantee: attend regularly and carry out the assignments his teachers set, and the college promises that you will not fail. If any of the 350 students have no A-level passes at the end, Mr Clinton will hand them pound;5,000.

But if this is a gamble, then Mr Clinton is more like the casino than the sucker at the table. Blackburn College has a 99 per cent pass rate for its A-level courses, making it incredibly unlikely that a student taking the standard three subjects will fail them all. There are caveats, too: students must attend and attempt all their exams, must have a 95 per cent attendance record in class, and must have met minimum standards for their work handed in before the exam.

If anything, he is betting not on whether his students pass or fail - it is the college's job to assess whether students are likely to succeed and to support them along the way - but on whether they find the idea of failure sufficiently off-putting that none of them will decide to throw their exams, pocket the pound;5,000 and put their knowledge to work later in resits. The college argues that students want to get good jobs and go to good universities more than they want cash in the short term, and says that they would not want to jeopardise their future with failure.

"I think that young people are not going to throw away two years of their life at Blackburn College purely to get pound;5,000.

I don't think many of them are fooled by the idea that pound;5,000 will set them up for life," Mr Clinton says.

Instead, the guarantee is about expressing the college's confidence in itself in the hope that it will rub off on students. "What parents and students seem to recognise is that we are serious about our students being successful. They seem to trust what we are about," he says.

That vote of confidence seems to have struck a chord with students. At a time when the numbers of school leavers entering college has dipped slightly for the first time in nearly two decades, according to a survey by the Association of Colleges, Blackburn has seen the number of enrolments soar by a remarkable 43 per cent among A-level students this year. It highlights the guarantee as part of its package of measures for fighting back against the cuts to the education maintenance allowance.

You can read the full article in the November 25 issue of TES.

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