Failure can be liberating in a culture where perfection is the goal
Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30
We are accustomed to schools teaching their pupils how to succeed, but Heather Hanbury, the Belfast-born headmistress of Wimbledon High School for girls, has introduced a real innovation: teaching her pupils how to fail.
Each year since 2012, the independent Wimbledon school – which has more than 900 pupils aged four to 18 – celebrates a "Failure Week", whereby girls learn that it is not only all right to fail, but sometimes it's necessary to fail in order to learn.
Guests are invited to the school to tell their failure stories, and there are uplifting narratives about famous failures (James Joyce's 33 rejections for 'Dubliners', might be a case in point). Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb after 256 failed attempts, is upheld as a template. Teachers and parents also recount their own failure stories at assembly.
Mrs Hanbury is an energetic and cheerful Ulsterwoman – and a hugely successful headmistress – who conceived of the idea of Failure Week because of the pressure, on young girls especially, to be successful at everything. Yes, she blames the media for some of this, saying: "It portrays people who are successful with seemingly no effort: but no one knows the back story of where these individuals may have failed."
One of the great failure stories to emerge relates to the late Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple. Several hundred totally unrecognisable gadgets are shown: these are Jobs' failed inventions, which never got anywhere. "We only know about his great success. We never hear of all the failures he experienced," Mrs Hanbury says.
There is an extra psychological issue, where girls are concerned, she adds. "From an early age, girls are praised for being 'good'. This means getting full marks, being neat and tidy, doing everything 'right'." This, she believes, makes adult females anxious about getting things right all the time. And when a person is over-anxious about perfection, they don't take risks.
Failure Week – held every February – is also a way of encouraging young people to take risks, academically and in their careers, while accepting they might fail. It doesn't matter if you fail, because you've learned something by failing.
Girls, she thinks, tend to blame themselves when they fail, whereas boys often shift the blame – though she is aware this is a "gross generalisation".
High-achieving and clever girls often have a special fear of failure and need to be encouraged to risk failing. It's better, says this inspirational headmistress, to experience disappointments in life – and even to get used to them – than to wonder "if only I had tried".
Mrs Hanbury, who was born in 1960, grew up on a council estate in south Belfast. Her Protestant family were poor, she says, but academically ambitious. Her father was a joiner and carpenter who left school at 14 but realised his own dream by attending university at the age of 38. "It's an Irish thing," Mrs Hanbury says. "Being keen on education."
She herself went to a grammar school now known as Hunterhouse College in Finaghy, Belfast, and then on to Edinburgh University. She didn't go straight into teaching: she had a career as a management consultant first.
Her background made her ambitious and robust – as did growing up during some of the worst periods of the Troubles. In her schooldays, teachers could be stern: she remembers a teacher damning an essay of hers because it was written in an unconventional style – instead of seeing the creative aspect of it.
Teachers should be encouraging, she says, but at the same time neither teachers nor parents should embrace this inflation of praise that is sometimes the fashion today, when everything is "brilliant" or "awesome". Youngsters are savvy and know when they are being over-praised. If the maths are wrong, they're wrong, and a teacher should not pretend otherwise. But that's where attitudes to failure can be applied: getting something wrong isn't a disaster. You find a way of getting it right, or better.
The pupils have responded well to Failure Week, and it has helped with confidence and decision-making. The girls at Wimbledon are high achievers – more than 90pc are in the top exam grades. But that's precisely why they need to embrace failure – they will meet it in real life, both in work and relationships.
And although it sounds paradoxical, Mrs Hanbury also introduced a "Blow Your Own Trumpet Week". She wanted to teach the girls that while it is okay to fail, it is also okay to be open about what you are good at. You are entitled to affirm your talents and your achievements when they are authentic (though not to swank about imaginary achievements).
Mrs Hanbury, who is married but has no children, has been so successful at Wimbledon High that she has been head-hunted to provide the same leadership at another London independent school, Lady Eleanor Holles. I'd suggest her innovatory ideas should be applied to girls' education on a general basis.
Young girls today are under more pressure, it seems to me, than they have ever been: to be clever, to look perfect, to be slim, to be popular and successful. It's great to be ambitious and to benefit from the opportunities open to young women today: but it's so important to learn that real success almost never comes easily, and coping and managing failures is one of the most beneficial of life's lessons.