What constitutes ‘failure’?


As our examinations and curriculum under-go huge reform, Brian Lightman asks what constitutes failure and success for today’s students.

I recently had the privilege of listening to a high-quality and balanced debate. The motion was “this house believes that today’s education is unsuited to tomorrow’s world”. The chair was a year 11 student at Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby and the participants comprised 70 or so students from local schools.

A large part of the discussion among these young people focused on what success is. While all understood the importance of qualifications, some strong views were heard: “Everybody’s success has a different definition. Grades only tell part of the story. Success isn’t a number. Schools are about more than grades.”

There was a strong recognition that home circumstances vary enormously and that success for some against massive odds, though lower in terms of raw attainment, might reflect a much higher degree of employability than that of some who, with great support and ease, had higher grades.

I did not hear excuses from these students for underachievement, just a mature recognition of the factors which affect educational attainment and some questioning about why our accountability system is so focused on attainment by all at the same time. They pointed out that we only assess a small part of what we know and that an education that prepares us for the future is about a much bigger picture.

When the discussion moved on to what failure is, the students were clear that it depends on who you are. They said it was unrealistic to define globally what failure is and were angry about the way this is done. One definition that particularly struck me was that failure is “not achieving what you wanted to after trying”, or “when you get to the point of deep regrets about what you haven’t achieved you have failed”.

The students felt that failure and success are largely about perception. Achieving an A grade when you could have got an A* might be just as much of a failure as failing the exam outright. Failure and achievement should be measured on effort.

Days after I attended that debate, we had the announcement about the new GCSEs and in particular how they would be graded. I found myself reminding commentators that we were discussing an exam for which none of the detail (eg, syllabus, sample questions) has been drafted and which will be based on a curriculum which schools have yet to design. Yet journalists kept asking me what would constitute a “fail”. 

My thoughts returned to those students who argued for an assessment system which allows them to display the kinds of knowledge, skills and understanding that they know they will need in the future. 

Instead of changing the exams, they wanted to see a curriculum that contains a balance of theoretical and applied knowledge for all, taught and assessed in a range of appropriate ways – not just those that are best suited to the assessment of traditional academic learning.

They wanted to see skills such as problem-solving, communication and numeracy embedded in the curriculum and they wanted access to high-quality guidance about the world of work. The message to government was that assessment should be driven by the curriculum and not vice-versa.

The most reassuring news was that the motion was roundly dismissed by nearly all present. The students recognised that their schools were already wholly committed to preparing them for the world of tomorrow but that there is still much more that can be done. 

The message to teachers and school leaders is to be confident in taking control and designing a broad and ambitious curriculum, which genuinely meets the needs of our students. 

And if the quality of that debate was anything to go by I know who I would be asking for advice. Policy-makers take heed.

  • Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk



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