Risk is easy for the rich

15th February 2013 at 00:00

I was fascinated by the news that MPs are looking to Eton College to see how state schools can "build better character". Apparently we're so fixated on results that we lag behind when it comes to true grit.

According to a Daily Telegraph report, public schools such as Eton are spawning well-rounded, self-confident risk-takers, while we in the state sector are churning out insipid, self-doubting wimps.

It's certainly true that Eton has produced a few swashbucklers in its time. The Eton hall of fame is crowded with mountaineers and explorers who have boldly gone where no man with a baronetcy and a sizeable endowment has gone before. Indeed, the fact that Sir Ranulph Fiennes went to Eton is being held up as evidence of its character-forming success.

So naturally MPs turned to the headmaster of Eton for advice. But his suggestion that in order to foster resilience we should create an environment where pupils can "try things without being afraid to fail" is rather worrying. Failure doesn't inevitably lead to tenacity. Sir Ranulph cocked up his A levels and went on to conquer mountains; but failure in our world is just that. There is a significant contextual difference between our two realities, and family finance - not mental fortitude - is the essential alchemy that transforms failure into success. To put it bluntly: risk is less risky when you are rich. It's easy to gamble and lose your shirt when your mother will buy you a new one.

Because of this, in the state sector we're inclined to pay lip service to the merits of taking risks. We stick a few posters on our classroom walls that warn "If you're not standing on the edge, you're taking up too much space". But we recognise - deep down - that ledges are only safe for climbers equipped with proper boots, climbing ropes and a Sherpa to carry their gear. Matalan kids in flip-flops are better off standing in the middle. So we subliminally encourage our pupils to play it safe: to pick subjects they will pass rather than things they enjoy; to study at home universities to minimise their debts and choose degrees that end in jobs. Like cautious parents we pen them inside our own comfort zones, keeping them safe from success.

So the suggestion that we man up and "foster character and resilience" is one we should embrace. How we do it is more problematic. The Eton model is to offer a broad range of extracurricular activities, but in state schools this is hard to deliver. Our schools aren't geared up to be flexible. Whenever you organise any extracurricular activities you have to cross the spaceNarnian time continuum, which means that for every hour you spend in a gallery you had to spend six months emailing a deputy head.

Schools are risk-averse places. Leadership teams view author visits or artist's workshops as some form of terrorist threat. In fact, they employ teams of people whose sole purpose in life is to find reasons to say no. Sometimes, in a sadistic twist, they will seem to say yes but insist on an impossible range of caveats. Yes, the activity can go ahead if a) you don't need cover, b) you don't need resources and c) no one misses maths. Combine these three together and it would be easier to make yourself king of France than take Year 12 to a museum.

So most of us rarely bother. The truth is that our children aren't stoical because we give up too easily. Our children keep rolling over because they watch us do the same.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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