Mary Bousted: Failure could be the best thing for children

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The Independent Online

The recent shocking spate of teenage suicides has focused attention on the mental health and wellbeing of our children. On all the available evidence, we have cause for concern. Parents worry about their children's happiness, teachers worry about the pressure on their pupils to succeed, and the Government is so concerned it has produced a Children's Plan with over 170 pages dedicated to making England "the best place in the world for our children to grow up".

We are some way from achieving this. We asked schoolchildren about their experience of education. They said they enjoy learning, but do not enjoy being tested. But we put our children and young people through a plethora of tests and examinations, and then wonder why any enjoyment in learning is destroyed.

They are drilled to pass the tests so their school can do well in the league tables. At 11 they worry about getting in to their parents' choice of secondary school and about getting split up from their friends. The pressure is then on to get five good GCSEs, and good A-levels to get into higher education and secure rewarding, well-paid employment.

The price is paid by young people who, far too early, are made to feel that they are failures. We wonder why so many young people give up when it is the rational response to being told, repeatedly, that you are not doing well enough.

And all the while our children are supervised. Outside school they are not allowed the freedom to play and learn unwatched.

At the same time they face immense pressure to fit in with their peers. And they face new forms of bullying – by text, email and on social networking sites.

We believe stress and mental ill-health would be reduced by a different approach to schooling – one that recognises that to be successful you have to be prepared to fail on the way.

Failing provides the experience to try again, and to learn from previous mistakes. In our over-tested, over-academic, over-narrow school curriculum, these positive lessons in life can be hard to learn.

Dr Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers