In one revolving door, and out through the other

'We all know that the best college is one where it's safe - safe for students to take risks, and, yes, maybe even to fail' AT this time of year, our revolving doors are whisking in prospective students and whirling out this session's intake towards their futures. Between interviewing new faces and collating results for those faces to which we have grown accustomed, there is a chance for course teams to review the year, to analyse retention and success rates, and to marvel at how we coped.

This year seems to have brought more than its fair share of problems for students: personal problems, worries about accommodation, relationships, part-time work, and money, money, money. Are the pressures growing? Or are students simply becoming poorer at life skills and less able to cope?

Certainly it's been suggested that as a society we are increasingly guilty of wrapping our children in cotton wool, so that they fail to develop coping strategies or problem-solving skills. We taxi them to Guides, disco classes or judo, we lovingly shield them from disappointment, hurt or harm. We monitor ever more carefully the influences that are brought to bear: this week, a forum on children and violence has suggested that musical chairs is no longer appropriate because it invites aggression and encourages the strongest, fastest children to push the others around. The end result of this fashion, we are warned, is that over-protected children become young adults ill-prepared for the real world.

And yet, who would advocate the school of hard knocks as the ideal preparation for future success and fulfilment? My friend's seven-year-old recently changed schools. "Everyone's so-oo nice," she confided during a shampoo session after her first day. "When you say something, they don't stick their face right in yours and yell 'Yeah, right'!"

I know you have got to experience the dark to appreciate the light, but what child really needs a healthy dose of intimidation every day? Year 3 children at a Manchester school set out a charter for their school: "Every child has the right: not to have to fight, to expect people to be kind, not to b made fun of, not to be made sad, not to be scared of the teachers, to have friends, not to be scared to come to school, to be safe."

A cotton wool paradise? Or an astonishingly wise and sensible bill of rights not just for primary school kids but for all in the world of education?

For many, the first taste of the real world is college. And without wrapping our students in cotton wool, we do have to recognise the importance of offering support. And it's not just the young learner who can find the adjustment difficult. Greg, at 35, has had life all sussed out for a long time, thank you very much, but coming to college has turned everything upside down. He's met new people, new ideas, and he's challenged by them. In course work, his study of the basic applications of behavioural science has introduced him to ideas and concepts he's never ever thought about before and he's finding it mind-blowing stuff.

He's admitted that he has been tempted to give up and go back to his old life but somehow the old life's not there any more. At the moment he is feeling isolated and out of step but he has persevered and he has seen the course through. Moving outside the comfort zone can be uncomfortable. It can be challenging. It can be risky.

Not everyone has Greg's courage. One of my students this week confided that he had been a gifted child. He had been brilliant at science and maths at school and continued through university towards a PhD. He pulled out half way through. "I realised that I'd been scared of trying anything I thought I might fail at. I only ever attempted what I knew I could do really well. It's as if I've been on a railway track all my life."

One day he just got off the train. It's taken some time but he's back in education, developing new skills. For the first time, he's taking risks.

As we reduce a year's work to a nice set of statistics, we wait to be judged on our performance. But we all know that the best college is one where it's safe - safe for students to take risks, and, yes, maybe even to fail.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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