Who’s afraid of failure? Not me.

Who’s afraid of failure? Not me.

I recently heard the UK had gained a ‘top ranking’ in the 2019 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report. PISA compares academic attainment of 15-year-olds across 79 countries, highlighting the outcomes of different education systems worldwide.

So, had the UK entered the top five for literacy, mathematics or science? Not this time. PISA ranked the UK 10th, 18th and 14th respectively for these subjects in 2019. This was broadly celebrated as a ‘good result’ for the UK. However, if we delve a little deeper, the wider stats raise more troubling questions.

PISA ranked British girls fifth globally for their ‘fear of failure’, behind peers in Taipei, Macao (China), Singapore and Brunei. With the exception of Brunei, these countries consistently out-rank the UK in literacy, mathematics and science. Consequently, should we conclude that UK girls need more fear, to improve their attainment?

To this, I say a loud and resounding no! As a nation, we have to ask ourselves – what price are we willing to pay for academic results?

A further concerning PISA result is: since 2015 the UK experienced the biggest decline in life satisfaction amongst 15-year-olds. Barely half of PISA’s British students reported feeling satisfied with their lives, ranking the UK 69th globally for this measure.

Is this a price worth paying?

My experience tells me that in reality ‘fear of failure’ actually paralyses a young person’s ability to reach their full potential, in the classroom and beyond. Fear is the enemy of educators and to an extent, the old adage rings true: fear of failure, ultimately leads to failure.

I believe fear of failure is rooted in a child’s experience of early years and primary education. UK state primary schools currently work to the SATs Testing. In a system, centred around the outcome of two tests – where you ‘pass or fail’ – is it surprising that children learn to see failure in such black and white terms?

As my colleague, Mrs Kerry Owens reflects: “SATs are a snapshot of a child’s learning and there is a lack of recognition of the achievements of children who do not reach the expected targets. Feedback is given as a score with no reference to where improvements should be made, and the child’s progress from his or her starting point is never referred to. SATs are meant to measure pupil progress but in fact are used to rank schools in league tables, taking no account of the school’s intake.”

As an independent school, St Mary’s School has the freedom to offer an early years and primary education that escapes this culture of fear. Whether in the classroom, on the sports field, enjoying creative pursuits or bug-hunting in Woodland Explorers – our girls learn to:

  • have a go
  • try things a different way
  • persevere to overcome challenges
  • support others in success and in failure
  • experience the positives that arise from failure

After all, as educators, we must consider the future society we are creating. Our nation’s best innovators, creators, entrepreneurs and leaders all experienced failures. It is part of life. What makes them truly great is their ability to face the fear, overcome the failure and to begin again on a better course.

So, as a Headteacher, I do tell my students it is OK to fail. What really matters is how you overcome it.

Also on our blog:


British Girls Fear of Failure

British School Children Among Least Satisfied With Their Lives