Leading article: Denying failure devalues success

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The Independent Online

Liz Beattie, a retired teacher and the Suffolk secretary and field officer of the Professional Association of Teachers, will tell the union's annual conference in Buxton that some children "find failure very hard to cope with", and that it can lead them to becoming depressed.

Beattie, 68, who taught for 37 years, will argue that the word "fail" should be replaced by the term "deferred success". As she says: "Eventually, if you experience enough of it [failure], it stops you in your tracks. Education is too important for that, we need to keep people striving. I've always thought that, educationally, it was a good thing to get rid of total pass or total fail. Learning should be lifelong, and it should be something that everybody knows they can do and have a bash at."

Parents' groups have already dismissed Beattie's argument as "political correctness gone absolutely mad" and "nonsensical", after news of her conference motion emerged last week. Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, said that the idea deserved "nought out of 10".

Beattie's proposal will only serve to enhance her union's reputation for eccentricity. The PAT, Britain's smallest teaching union, has, in previous years, hit the headlines with its conference motions calling for the introduction of dogs as classroom assistants, and rebuking Kylie Minogue for her skimpy outfits. However, Beattie's focus on failure is not merely another wacky idea from the PAT, and, however misguided, does raise important issues about the purpose of education.

Failure can be an important lesson and, without it, what is the value of success? Of course, Beattie is right that children's efforts must always be met with encouragement, and no pupil should ever be written off as a failure. But by no means does this imply that the term failure should be removed from the classroom.

Children must learn that certain standards have to be reached and, if they are not reached, then failure is the inevitable consequence. By removing the possibility of failure, we run the risk of devaluing children's success.