Children must be allowed to fail and to learn from their mistakes, says Neil Brooks, headmaster of Cranleigh Preparatory School

The pandemic has been horrendous for many, but as is often the case, a phoenix will rise from the ashes. Schools will inevitably change the way in which education is delivered; they have finally had the boot in the backside to deliver the IT they have been promising for 15 years, and pupils have now learned many skills through remote learning that are entirely aligned with the world of work.

Teachers have witnessed children develop independent research and collaborative skills, resilience and a sense of intellectual experimentation. At last, the education sector – which should be leading the fourth industrial revolution – is catching up with the rest of society.

We have had to reassess the aims of schooling. The importance of examination results has devalued, thankfully. Not that they are unimportant, but they should not be kept aloft on a pedestal, towering above the development of character and personality.

It is these two goals encompassing resilience, collaboration skills, tolerance, teamwork, judgement, negotiation and other hard-to-measure traits which are justifiably creeping up the ladder, mirroring the needs of the workplace. 

Cranleigh Preparatory School
Cranleigh Preparatory School

Schools prepare individuals to play their part in the bigger team of society and to develop their individuality. It is no paradox. School children need to step into the adult world with an emerging robustness and resilience that allows them to meet the dips of life’s rollercoaster without crumbling and collapsing. They need to understand their own capabilities, and most important of all, be comfortable with them. How can someone work in or lead a team if the individual is unaware of their own limitations, or the talents of others?

It is therefore crucially important that parents allow their children to fail. I have never come across a teacher, nor a successful business person, nor any entrepreneur, musician, artist (the list goes on), who does not recognise the great value of making mistakes and learning from them. The fear of failure and the associated ‘stigma’ comes from parents who are too eager to drive a snowplough in front of their child, clearing away all problems and obstacles on a path to continuous and sustained success. 

What a failure in parenting. Parents must allow their offspring to be upset at times – it happens in life through no fault of our own. We are their guides, their mentors, preparing them to go into the big wide world with the resilience to face the lows and to scream ‘Alleluia’ at the heights.

Cranleigh Preparatory School
Cranleigh Preparatory School

There is an absolute balance to be struck between supportive encouragement and giving a child perspective. When a parent enters a headteacher’s study on behalf of a child who has been berated by a teacher to defend their darling’s actions, their first question tends to be, ‘have you heard their side of the story?’ As if heads have never dealt with errant pupils before. It’s a mistake. Parents need to let their children sort out their own problems and to accept, if need be, that life isn’t always fair. I tell them so, but what is harder to point out is that the problem has probably arisen more because the child is desperate to appease parents who cannot accept that their child could possibly have ‘failed’. I usually advise the child to go and talk through the problem with the teacher they have upset, shouldering the problem themselves, with the loving, sensible parent ready to offer advice and guidance rather than take over.

Let the child develop their own character, not what we as adults hope they might be, or think they should be. Dispense with the snowplough and accept the advice of experienced professionals. Love and encourage them, but do not scaffold them and stifle their inquisitiveness, experimentation or exploration. Be the crash mat for when they tumble, and then smile and put that fall in perspective.

Find Cranleigh Prep’s School House online listing here