Should children be allowed to fail?
This was particularly relevant this week when exploring the development of our Certificate of Educational Achievement for S1 – S3. The question was asked of me “Will children be able to fail to achieve the certificate? Now such a seemingly innocent question struck at what has become a core principal of Scottish education over the last 30 years. Much of this was set in train by the Munn and Dunning Reports published in 1977. The Dunning Committee focused upon assessment, underpinned by the following principle:
“All pupils should be assessed in a way which would enable them to demonstrate positive achievement”
And there you have it. One simple sentence which was translated in practice into “no child shall experience failure”, i.e. even the lowest level of achievement should be recognised.
Such thinking has certainly become the norm in Scottish education and woe betide anyone who thinks of developing any assessment system which doesn’t provide some form of recognition for all – even those who have done nothing to deserve such recognition.
Which got me to thinking about failure, for it seems to me that the very word in educational terms has become interwoven with the notions of self-esteem and personal well-being, i.e. “You cannot label a child as a failure” – so what we do is find ways to recognise even the smallest achievements and try to give them value. But perhaps it’s time to question such orthodoxy?
Perhaps we have created a comfort zone for some children – who have come to learn that they need not invest any personal effort in their own education -knowing that whatever they do will gain some credit. I’d say this is particularly true of many boys.
Which takes me back to our plans for a Certificate of Educational Achievement to cover the S1-S3 stages of secondary school. In our system we hope to recognise achievement at three levels – pass, merit and excellence. Which leads, naturally, to the question – so does everyone pass? And, of course, if someone doesn’t pass then – then they must have, logically, failed.
But pause here and tease this out as little further. In our system we are hoping to develop a system whereby learners can accumulate points for achievement in a range of subject areas, wider achievements, skills, etc. Our system will attempt recognise that personal achievements vary from person to person and that strengths in one area can compensate for weaknesses in others. In such a system accumulation of points lead one towards the thresholds established for pass, merit and excellence. In this way learners don’t fail – as such – but have not yet reached the standard.
One last point – we should always attempt to recognise the achievements of those who have particular and severe additional support for learning needs – in this way thresholds could be modified to take account of their personal circumstances. However, I would see this proportion of learners to be very small.