The fear of failure that made me pin Ted against a wall

12th June 2009 at 01:00

Teachers are good at pretending to be angry. Once every year or so, the real thing bursts through. It happens when you are tired or the dog's eaten your lottery ticket. The other day I lost it with a Year 11 boy called Ted.

I lost it big time. I shouted at him so loudly that the whole school froze. Ewes gave birth prematurely in East Prawle a mile away and a shoal of mackerel entering the Kingsbridge estuary turned and fled for France. I left him pinned so firmly to the corridor wall that he could not move until the caretaker came and prised him off with a crowbar.

What had he done? He missed an appointment with me. That's all. The fact that this triggered such a cataclysmic purging of my emotions tells us a lot about the life and death struggle of trying to boost exam statistics.

Ted is one of the Year 11 borderline students I have been mentoring. Likeable, intelligent, uninterested and, like many adolescent boys, utterly exasperating. I tried everything with Ted. Praise seemed to work for a while because he grinned, shyly, when I gave him commendations.

Outright bribery failed because we could not find anything that he wanted enough, and that I could afford, as an incentive for improving attendance.

Punishment worked occasionally, but in the end he did not even show up for school, let alone detention. Parental intervention? "He won't get out of bed when I tell him, so what am I supposed to do?" his mother asked.

The Teds of this world are not bad kids; they are not violent or mean or drug-sodden. The thing that makes them so infuriating is their lack of motivation. They cannot make a connection between their present behaviour and their future prospects. Take Jake, another of my mentor group and yes, another boy. He's been late every day, behind with his coursework and is a persistent truant. He wants to join the sixth form for A-levels. I try to explain why his current behaviour makes this unlikely. He smiles at me, uncomprehending. I pick up my head and bang it against the wall.

In conversations with his teachers and parents, the same diagnosis recurs. He needs to take responsibility, they say. They are right, and the process of learning to take responsibility involves error and failure. That is how we learn about cause and effect, actions and consequences.

The problem for schools in our high-accountability culture is that they cannot afford failure. No teacher can allow any piece of coursework to be below a grade C. Missed the deadline? Have an extension. Made some spelling mistakes? Better rewrite it. Can't get the drawing quite right? Here, let me do it for you.

All too often it's the teachers who are working hard, not the students. It's partly my fault as a head. If Ted and Jake have not contributed to my precious A*-C statistics in September, what will I say to their teachers? I ought to say: "Serves them right. They got what they deserved and they have learnt a lesson." I am more likely to say: "Why didn't you get them a C? What went wrong? What are you going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again next year?" There is now a dangerous assumption in schools: it is not children who fail exams, but teachers who fail to get them a pass.

Jamie Oliver worries that we are feeding our young a diet that will make them fat and susceptible to heart attacks. I worry that a diet of bitesize revision guides and teachers serving up answers on a plate will produce intellectual skeletons incapable of taking responsibility for either their own learning or their own actions.

Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford, spoke to the House of Lords earlier this year about the effect of social networking sites and computer games on the development of young brains. She warned against "a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences". Why worry about exams in two months' time when it's warm and cosy in bed right now?

The professor worries that games put all the emphasis on the buzz of rescuing the princess: "No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none." She is not just concerned about the lack of awareness of consequences but about short attention spans, an inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity. Never mind - as long as they get at least five grade Cs, all will be well.

I finally lost patience with Ted and sent him on study leave two weeks early. However, he arrived at my door the next morning. I asked him why he was there as he was supposed to be on study leave. He said he had done the practice maths paper I wanted from him. I sent him off to his normal lessons. I bet I'll let Jake into the sixth form as well. Kids, eh?

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today