Don't fear the F-word

8th May 2015 at 01:00

I don't deal well with failure. I was nearly 18 when I first failed anything of importance: my driving test. Here I was, a certified failure, horrified and annoyed in equal measure - especially as all my friends had passed first time.

They say we learn more from our failures than our successes, but I didn't. At the second driving test, I was still so indignant at the injustice that I went the wrong way down a one-way street, nearly took out a white van and was brought back early to the test centre with a D (for danger) marked on my card.

I'm better now at dealing with failure but I've had more practice.

Children, like adults, struggle with failure too, so it doesn't help that this generation of primary school children have more things to fail at than we did. When I was at primary school, the only things we were tested on were times tables, spellings and our ability to hold a balance in gymnastics. When we did take a test, it was a novelty, with no build-up or dissection.

Nowadays, of course, tests are doled out freely, and for many primary children they're a real stumbling block - especially when the results are published. Ask any Year 6 pupil to list their worries and you can almost guarantee that "doing well in my Sats" will be in the top five.

For Year 6 teachers, under pressure to hit targets, it is nigh on impossible not to transfer stress to the children. No matter how nurturing the teacher, it's hard to keep an edge out of your voice when it's the end of April and a good third of the class still believe that 0.5 equals 15.

But you have to try because, for so many children, fear of failure and being seen to fail is a real problem.

The other day, when pressed for time, I asked the children to call out their spelling test scores. I quickly realised my mistake when some children flatly refused and one girl burst into tears. Of course, what they really need - apart from to learn their spellings properly - is a hefty dose of self-confidence.

One of the most common parents' evening refrains is that pupils don't like getting things wrong. I've taken to starting my maths lessons with the mantra: "If you get everything right first time, then you're not learning." We're pushing the failure-as-character-building philosophy for all it's worth.

Unfortunately, staff performance management targets are now all about hitting data thresholds first and pastoral care second, when it should be the other way around. So long as there's good teaching to accompany it, improving a child's confidence can only have a positive effect on their achievement.

For the pre-teens of today, who have to deal with the stress of Sats, cyberbullying and dolls that look like strippers, a boost to self-esteem is needed like never before. Forget "don't smile before Christmas". Make sure every child knows you like them, and that you believe they can do it. One day they might invent a test for it.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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