It’s hard to keep on trying after failure. We can talk about the power of resilience and proffer inspirational quotes, but the reality of failure feels very different, especially when it seems like everyone else has passed.
Schools minister Nick Gibb is a great supporter of the compulsory GCSE resit. As gatekeeper of the policy, he stands firm, like a governmental Gandalf, banging his stick and bellowing “66 per cent of you shall not pass”.
But don’t worry, as GCSE resitgate trudges on and on, covering the same well-worn ground, Mr Gibb has recently offered us some sage advice. Now listen, because you might learn something. Speaking about maths resits on BBC Breakfast recently, he said: “It will take time for further education colleges to adapt their teaching to ensure that more young people get a good pass.”
Aww, thanks Nick. You see, I thought that the lift-with-the-cables-cut drop in pass rates from before compulsory GCSE resits to after was caused by shoving students into exams before they had mastered the skills required to pass them. I thought it was owing to the drip, drip, drip of confidence leaking away from learners who are pressured through repeated failure by a system that’s supposed to support them. But no, that’s not it at all. It seems that FE teachers are just doing it wrong.
As a failure aficionado, I can offer an expert view on the cloudburst of shit that rains down on your confidence when you don’t get the results you want. At risk of bragging, I’ve tried and failed across a variety of pursuits. One inevitably picks oneself up and carries on carrying on. I say inevitably, but that’s from my perspective as a battle-scarred old trooper, not that of a young person who’s becoming conditioned to accept failure as the norm.
Dealing with disappointment
My current challenge is the literature course I’m taking as part of my Open University degree. I love it. I don’t love writing the essays. I did love them until I didn’t get the results I wanted.
The more I learn, the more it feels like buckets of knowledge are being poured into my understanding of the wider world. But that dedication was not rewarded in the 60 per cent essay score I recently gained. It’s not a terrible number, but it’s a topple from the 70s and 80s I was getting.
I’m not questioning the mark either; the feedback was valuable and I hope my own marking will improve from the excellent example being modelled. But to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I felt like giving up.
But my most recent experience of failure is a faint shadow compared with that of young people who have been disappointed again and again. They keep trying because of teachers who do their best to enable students to do their best, despite rules that stack the odds against them.
So perhaps it’s time for Mr Gibb to adapt his policy to ensure that more young people learn in a way that better suits their progression, rather than to simply pass, or more likely, fail.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat