Futile lessons in the art of self-deception

25th November 2005 at 00:00
I recently watched a television programme called The Xtra Factor. It's a spin-off of The X Factor which, I confess, I quite enjoy. The X Factor is a national talent contest (OK, so you watch it, too) featuring mostly young people whose ability for self-delusion is monumental. It seems that only a few of them can sing at all, but they all possess a deep conviction that they have "star quality". That's what makes it so watchable - the mystery that is the human condition.

But The Xtra Factor reaches new lows in horror. It takes the form of a post mortem on the programme shown earlier in the evening. Recently, it featured a sort of boy bandbarber- shop quartet which had been ruled out of the contest.

Judgement was made against them. It was all very subjective, and perhaps they weren't the worst of what was a very mediocre bunch. Actually, I thought they were pretty good. What appalled me was the reaction to their failure to qualify for the next round. It was like a bereavement. Other competitors clustered around them bewailing the fact that they hadn't got through - entirely insincerely because if it hadn't been the boys, it would have been one of them.

The families were interviewed, and they turned tearful eyes heavy with mascara to the cameras to profess their profound grief at the ruling. The whole performance was repulsive. I found myself shouting at the screen, "They've lost a talent contest for heaven's sake!" They made me think of Year 9 when someone loses a boyfriend, or is told off by a teacher, or has a mobile phone confiscated. The level of emotion is so high you can taste it. Their friends rally round and are "there for them". The difference is that the people in this show are not 13. Most are pushing 30.

So, as an educationist who cannot shed the mantle even on a Saturday night, I ask myself why they are like that. Do they need National Service or something? I think I know the answer, or at least part of it. It is because they are not allowed to fail at school and haven't been allowed to for about 20 years now.

It's not possible to say to a pupil: "Look, you can't do this - you have no interest in it and if you study it until you're 45 it's still not going to happen for you, so let's stop doing it and try something else. You and I both know that an F in English Lit is a fail, but we both pretend that it's not. Hey kid, you've got a GCSE in English Lit!"

So here's a great new educational idea. Let's teach children how to fail.

Innovative and exciting, I know it is, and possibly just too radical for this new century. But how about we give it a whirl and see what happens? Why can't we tell students that they're no good at something?

Mostly they know anyway, but we still burden them with qualifications that mean nothing at all in real terms. We don't even pretend: schools only publish A*-C grades. D-F are literally not worth the paper they're printed on. It must make those students in the D-F category really annoyed. Why put them through two years' study for a bogus qualification? Why not say to them: "OK, this is not for you, but we're going to take the time and trouble to work out what is for you because we are teachers and that's what we do."

It's a simple idea and one that would not be difficult to carry out, providing the Government would give teachers the time to do it. That, too, would not be hard if the Government would allow teachers to do what they are good at - teaching! - and cut out the hours and hours of administration that teachers have to do in order to prove that they are good at it.

Meanwhile, for expediency alone we string students along, forcing them into moulds that just won't contain them. I know that a nod has been made to this by providing vocational courses, but it's only a nod. These courses do not set the student seriously on a course in the way that academic qualifications set a student on a course of further education. It is insulting to the students and undermines their intelligence, and there's not a thing they can do about it.

So let's try it. Let's get into the way of saying: "No, you can't do this."

It shows them much greater respect, and will no doubt give them the strength to overcome rejection when they enter The X Factor.

Jennifer Baker teaches in the west Highlands

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