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Never mind growth mindset - should kids be allowed to fail?

7:00pm, Monday 18 September 2017, CIEE Global Institute, London WC1B 4JP

Should failure be accepted as part of life and growing up? Or is it right that every time a pupil is in danger of underperforming in an exam, teachers should intervene? In an era of high-stakes accountability and education for social mobility, are schools now too afraid to let their students fail?

The phrase ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ was first coined by the former education secretary, Michael Gove, to describe what he saw as the attitude of some teachers for their pupils. But some suggest that this notion has mutated into a mantra of ‘no student must fail’. They claim that stressed-out teachers are the ones now held almost entirely responsible for the success or failure of their students. It is time, they argue, to shift greater responsibility for success or failure back onto those who actually sit the tests.

One such dissenting voice is the Education Forum’s convenor, Kevin Rooney, head of social science at Queen’s School, Bushey. He identifies a risk to pupils’ academic potential presented by overprotective teachers and parents. He says that while headteachers are obsessed with their school’s performance indicators, they become too afraid to let their pupils fail – or even accept that some of them deserve to fail – lest their school looks bad. He also takes aim at what he calls a technocratic turn in education, represented by a culture of certification, Growth Mindset, performance targets and performance-related pay, which he also holds partly responsible for a fear of failure.

In this discussion, Kevin will explain why, when it comes to all exams, including GCSE and A Level, his contention is that we should desist from the language of ‘intervention’ and not shy away from letting pupils fail.

But is he right? Do interventions genuinely degrade rather than improve education? Can it be right to accuse hard-working and conscientious teachers of being too afraid to let children take intellectual risks, and to require their students to experience more failure? Perhaps we need to distinguish between summative and formative assessment in this discussion. Or perhaps Kevin simply needs to get off his romantic high horse and accept the crucial importance of exam grades to university places and future careers. So what if it involves a bit of intervention and teaching to the test?

Listen to the opening remarks


Kevin Rooney
convenor, IoI Education Forum; head of social science, Queen’s School, Bushey

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