Matthew Norman: I'm all for a little sugar coating on failure

The euphemism 'deferred success' is so tailored to the politician that Ms Kelly is rash to dismiss it
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The Independent Online

Ms Beattie has been drenched with ridicule since her remark to the Professional Association of Teachers was leaked in advance earlier this week, and perhaps her argument that repeated failure in exams can damage pupils' interest in learning does sound a little topsy turvy.

Yet it's hard to believe she deserves the Education Secretary's predictably witless response that she gives the notion "nought out of 10". What has been the official story of every government's education policy for 40 years if not one seemingly interminable deferral of success?

In fact, the euphemism is so beautifully tailored to the unintentionally satirical argot of the professional politician that Ms Kelly seems rash to dismiss it out of hand. Whenever coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians are killed by a suicide bomber, Messrs Bush and Blair reassure us that the policy of occupation isn't failing. Instead they suggest that the successful creation of a peaceful Iraq is being deferred until some time in the mystical future.

The same holds true for the latest setback in the "war against terror", currently scrapping with the First Test at Lord's for control of the airwaves. And it goes also for the protocol that is rigidly observed whenever a minister is given the chop.

The ritual exchange of letters between the newly "resigned" and an abundantly grateful PM may be preposterous (as if Peter Mandelson would ever willingly resign from anything). But it's also oddly touching because it exhibits some concern, in a notably brutal world, for the feelings of the self-evident failure.

So if grizzled political hacks are deserving of such delicacy, why shouldn't it also be shown to those at the most emotionally vulnerable stage of the life cycle who flunk an exam?

A few years ago, for reasons I haven't begun to fathom, the headmaster of our son's school asked me to do the honours on prize day. Not since the teetotal Gussie Fink-Nottle gave a similar address on half a bottle of gin has any speech to an academic audience been so ostentatiously deferred a success. For my words were directed not towards those sitting smugly with their books and trophies, let alone their parents. I spoke only to those forlorn little cherubs who had won nothing.

With an older audience, I might have peppered the speech with quotations about the splendour of deferred success. Long before Liz Beattie, in the sixth century BC, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, said that "failure is the foundation of success, and the means by which it is achieved." A little later, Confucius chipped in his twopennorth, with "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail."

That captivating High Court plaintiff Roman Polanski takes the same line: "Every failure made me more confident, because I wanted even more to achieve as revenge. To show that I could."

I could have bored the assembled for another six hours about failure being the condiment that gives success its flavour (Truman Capote); about how we are all failures - at least the best of us are (JM Barrie); and about failure being much more interesting than success (Max Beerbohm) and the highway to success (John Keats).

Philosophers, poets, novelist, poets, artists, film directors and statesmen - notably that serial deferrer of success in military exams, Winston Churchill - have recognised and serenaded the value of failure throughout human history, albeit not in words with much meaning to the five-year-old cruelly overlooked for the mental arithmetic cup. So I stuck to my own experiences of never having won a prize for anything, and screwing up A- levels, university examinations and later law exams, and offered what succour I could.

That the children themselves weren't paying a bit of attention no more needs stating than the fact that their parents were scandalised by the sentiment that academic success is among the most overrated things in this life. These were people, after all, who started neurosing about getting their offspring into the right school long before they thought about weaning them. To these remorselessly ambitious parents, as to the Government, the passing of exams is everything.

For their issue, meanwhile, the reduction of education to the absurdity of league tables is a betrayal both of what ought to be a carefree childhood, and of the future it is supposed to ensure.

Ms Kelly points out that "when young people grow up they have to deal with success and failure", and this is of course true. They will also have to cope with bereavement, romantic rejection and income tax forms, but that's hardly a compelling reason to expose them to such nasteries long before they hit puberty.

Children - even those who can barely manage their six-times table or read well - are not entirely dim. They know when they have done well and when they have not. Yet which of us, when called in to be handed the P45, wouldn't rather hear that we are reluctantly being "let go", as though it were some kind of blessed release, than "sacked for not being up to the job"? Which boss doesn't at least try to coat the cyanide capsule with honey?

Just like every false dawn for England in the Ashes and almost every attempt in history to defeat terrorism with force, all political careers end in failure, as Enoch Powell was indelicate enough to put it. When one day Mr Blair or Gordon Brown wearies of Ms Kelly, the Prime Ministerial letter accepting her "resignation" will avoid any hint of the F word. Quite the reverse, it will thank her profusely for her many outstanding achievements, and express the hope that that she will eventually return to high office. It will, in other words, formally defer her success.

And while she will take little comfort from that insincere sentiment, she may be at least a little grateful for the face-saving formulaic platitudes. If silly semantical niceties are deemed worthy to soften the sense of rejection of a departing Secretary of State for Education, would it be such a terrible thing if they cushioned small children from the misery of a flunked exam?