Education: Devastating failure, and how to survive it

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DEATH seemed the only answer. John's poor A-level results left him feeling hopeless and worthless. All his friends seemed to have done better; their futures looked bright, whereas his looked bleak. His hopes for an aeronautical career were finished. All those years of school - wasted.

Mum and Dad hadn't reacted too badly, but he'd still let them down.

Then there was the car they'd promised. He'd told his girlfriend about it and boasted to his friends. Now there was nothing but embarrassment.

John is typical of the young people who contemplate, and even attempt suicide on receiving poor exam results. Others go on an alcoholic binge, seeking oblivion. Past drug abusers will again seek out drugs. Some simply say: 'To hell with it all', and go off travelling.

All feel a sense of failure and worthlessness, even those who have got Bs when they expected As. Some turn this into anger, blaming others for their own failure. They feel frustrated by the appeals procedure. They have to face those people who expected more of them: friends, family, teachers. But it is not the end of the world. Failure is not entirely disadvantageous, according to Dr Herb Etkin, a psychiatrist and a leading authority on the psychology of young people.

Dr Etkin, who is clinical director of a young people's unit at Ticehurst House Hospital, East Sussex, one of Britain's oldest centres for psychiatric research and medicine, says that the most important thing is to remember that exams can be retaken: most people who do so are successful the second time around. He suggests that it is like falling off a horse while learning to ride; you just have to climb on again.

All successful people have had failures in their lives and have used them as a learning experience. Dr Etkin says exam failure should be put down to experience, with an aim to do better next time.

He recommends a positive post- mortem. Look at where things could have gone wrong, to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Perhaps the exam technique was wrong - private tuition may help. Maybe exam nerves were to blame - there is evidence that some bright people are adversely affected by exam nerves. Their white blood cell count rises, they have lowered immunity, feel more fragile and do not function as well as normal. So help in mastering their fears can lead to success.

Family and friends should rally round. Parents must never be critical, says Dr Etkin, but supportive at all times, without minimising the importance of the situation - which the young person recognises only too well.

It is crucial that the young person is encouraged to resit the exam. After all, it is only one more year, a year which some of their friends who passed will anyway be taking as a year off before they start university.

However, it can be a difficult time for the whole family. It has been likened to a sense of bereavement pervading the household, says Dr Etkin. But, unlike a bereavement, there is a second chance. It is just a hiccup; a time to take stock and try again. Parents can aggravate the situation by blaming each other, arguing and making the young person feel even more guilty. Comparisons with successful brothers and sisters are particularly dangerous and should be avoided. The atmosphere of catastrophe can make younger brothers and sisters fearful of exams. Parents will be unaware of the anxiety harboured by the younger child until later. That is why it is so important to create a positive environment without denying the importance of the occasion.

Parents should be on the look- out for signs of depression. Their sons or daughters can start to feel they are failures in everything. - forgetting successes and talents in other aspects of their lives, such as sport and music, and dismissing their real abilities.

All those around them, including teachers, should help them to put their lack of success down to experience, and encourage them to do better next time.

There should be no need for psychiatric care, says Dr Etkin, who treats a wide range of problems experienced by young people. Only when there is total and intense collapse should medical attention be sought. The signs of this are loss of appetite, deep withdrawal, inability to sleep, refusal to participate in normal activities - or, alternatively, hyperactivity, when young people plunge themselves into frenzied activity. All these signs are significant only when they are outside the person's normal behaviour.

For many families, exam failure can be unifying. Everybody rallies together. From these families come children who face difficulties positively and look upon failures as building blocks in life, seeing them as opportunities to take stock, brush down and try again.