Give them lessons in how to fail

Libby Purves

Last week, on a sweltering day, I led an expedition round the M25 with a carload of 17-year-olds.

I had been elected chauffeur for an Oxford college open-day, with strict instructions to make myself scarce as soon as we got there, and when it was over to meet them in the pub and not - repeat not - hover maternally round the Lodge.

These open days are becoming a fine art for many universities, from old stone to redbrick to concrete. Some, I am told, have the tone of pure sales pitches: choose us, we're cool. A few don't even demand booking, but desperately flypost the local town.

At the other end of the scale, more restrained institutions only let those in who already hold provisional offers ("What's that all about?" demanded my car-load. "How'd you know whether to waste a UCAS line on them if they won't let you in to nose around?") This one, though, was first-book, first-served, so none of them had offers. And the first thing they were told, with cheerful brio, was that most of them never would have.

There they were, the pride of their various schools, carefully taught, glistening with starred-As, bearing heavy hopes from teacher and parent. But the first thing they were offered was reality. The admissions tutor greeted them with: "Hello. Many of you sitting here have never failed at anything. But take it from me, you might very well fail at this. But have a go, only don't be disheartened if you fail."

They really liked that. A buzz of general approval filled the car as they told me about it. Later on, I discussed it with a 25-year-old doctor, who sagely said: "Yup. They do well to warn them. That's the trouble with being a high achiever. It's all the worse when you trip up for the first time."

Then he told me a cautionary tale. He had been head boy of his school and captain of chess and cricket. He had 12 A-star GCSEs, four A-levels, a place on Operation Raleigh and a scholarship from his first choice of medical school. He also played the cello for a spell in a youth orchestra, and expected a choice of parts in school plays.

Then he started driving lessons in the September of his gap year, and failed the theory test twice and the practical test four times in succession. This everyday skill, mastered by every Neanderthal oik in a battered white van, every fluffy white-haired lady in the supermarket car park, appeared to be beyond him. He fell into bitter depression.

"Devastating. I couldn't believe it was happening. I nearly decided not to go to university because I never wanted to be tested again, on anything. I had no idea failing hurt so much. Why did nobody ever train me in how to fail? Even at my primary school I always won the egg and spoon."

Well, there's a new curriculum challenge for you. A whole new key skill. Despite the strenuous efforts of the Department for Education and Skills to set so many tests that even seven-year-olds get anxious and 11-year-olds treat national tests as if they were A-levels, there must be children out there who are so insouciantly able that they sail through their education without ever learning how to fail and then stick their world back together.

Clearly, the staff at the young doctor's school should have put their heads together and ensured that there was something at which this monster of perfection would be sure to make a complete fool of himself while others cantered past. The more baroque activities a school has, therefore, the better.

I speak as the parent of a daughter who had to leave the school guard troop because she kept holding her gun upside down at the salute, and whose dramatic and academic successes are pleasingly offset by her fame at having let through 28 goals in one netball match, and failed to get into the National Youth Theatre after an audition in which she began giggling during her Sylvia Plath recitation.

So while more normal pupils are guided towards a sense of achievement, educators of the bright should be devising activities and tests to ensure that everyone has a fair chance of falling flat on their face. Set the gung-ho athletic boys to knitting, and the glitteringly academic girls to one of those hideous technology projects which end up in a puddle of solder and plastic on the floor.

Or get the cleverest 10 per cent to do one extra GCSE subject, at which they have a more than sporting chance of ignominy. Failure: it's what life's all about.

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Libby Purves

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