A lesson for adults by Chandan Shergill

Is it time to teach our kids how to fail? I’m pondering this as I watch the artist Kid Carpet skip and sing around a school hall alongside a lively year 5 class from Millbrook primary in Wigan. Dressed as charming bushy-tailed squirrels, with a few Einstein-wigged inventors thrown into the mix, the children and Kid Carpet tell a story about a bridge that was built in the Netherlands just for squirrels, to help them cross a busy main road connecting areas of woodland. The squirrel bridge cost €150,000, and in the first four years of being built, was used by… only five squirrels. Clearly a failure – except almost 10 years later, the bridge was used by a record number of not only squirrels, but also pine martens, and is finally considered a success.

This story is part of a brilliant new show called Epic Fail, a performance project by Moving Roots; a collective of arts organisations from across the UK co-creating work with local communities. As well as Wigan, Epic Fail has taken place in schools in Peterborough, Stoke and east Cardiff – places strategically chosen as under-served and under-funded, and places that are often seen to have ‘failed’. Kid Carpet has led a two week residency in each school and worked alongside pupils to create a show to be performed for fellow pupils, parents and staff.

As you may have guessed, Epic Fail is all about failure, and is packed with stories of failings big and small, from stories like the squirrel bridge – large scale projects that eventually succeeded – to skits by the pupils themselves on useless inventions like banana phones. It was entertaining, silly and adorable, as children’s plays are wont to be, full of funny little songs (the unmistakable stamp of Kid Carpet) and novel for me as a new parent, who hopefully has plenty of these to come.

‘The pressure put on children to succeed’

It was a joy to witness; the pupils performing were obviously rapt, the teachers vocally enthusiastic about the whole endeavour – grateful for the opportunity to be involved in something so original, and willing to trust the process. It was a perfect example of how to effectively engage with arts in school, using performance, and working with national artists and established arts organisations, as well as teaching important lessons at a crucially impressionable age – how it’s OK to fail, that’s how we learn, and maybe that failure will turn into a success one day.

And although the message of the show was resoundingly positive, full of delight as well as lessons to learn, as an adult and parent I felt almost ashamed when exams were mentioned by the children with terror: inviting the audience to collectively consider the pressure we put on our children to succeed.

English children are amongst the most tested in the world, and yet there is no evidence to suggest that frequent mandatory national tests raise educational performance.

‘Tools for better mental health’

According to a 2018 study, 47% of English 11 year olds are classed as failures. What does that mean? More troubling was the finding that almost half of 10 and 11 year olds felt ‘anxious’ about sitting their SATS, and for 40% their ‘biggest worry’ was letting their parents down. Almost a quarter couldn’t concentrate as they felt so under pressure. All of which makes for a depressing read.

I remember the importance of exam success looming over my own otherwise care-free school days, especially as a child of immigrant parents. Is this pressure really necessary? Is success measured only by high marks at school?

Epic Fail encourages us to think of failure as an innovation and an opportunity to learn, or at least as something we needn’t fear. Failing builds resilience, encourages persistence, helps us learn how to manage disappointment – all tools for better mental health.

Speaking to the kids themselves following the show (aside from how electric they were to have just performed) I was struck by how much of the message they had taken on board, and how mature their attitudes were when discussing what they had learned about success and failure:

I try not to get stressed over the fact that I’ve got something wrong”

Now if something doesn’t go well the first time, I just try again”

Sometimes it’s good to fail, because then you learn”

To learn such lessons at a young age is vital to carrying them beyond the formative years, and worth considering as our children go back to school. This shift in focus and attitude is more relevant than ever post-Covid, with harsh government catch up strategies in schools and a growing number of children being referred for mental health support.

‘Wigan’s journey of positive change’

But the idea that failure can be a fundamental step on the path to learning, and that it’s OK to get things wrong, are also powerful lessons that many adults haven’t quite grasped. Which is why it’s important that change is in the air concerning attitudes towards failure. Look at the popularity of the How to Fail podcast, or the example of entrepreneurs with a have-a-go attitude, alongside recent studies showing that start-ups are more likely to succeed when entrepreneurs have a positive attitude towards failure. Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking reiterates this idea that failure, when channelled correctly, can provide the most assured path to success. There’s even a Museum of Failure which is both touring and online, all showing steps towards a collective embracing of a culture of failing. Fingers crossed, failure is no longer a dirty word.

Wigan itself is bucking the trend of so-called failing towns, and actually thriving. Last year I moved back to Wigan, having grown up here, and see it as a town on a journey of positive change, with ambitious council strategies, a planned overhaul of the town centre, and new arts venues in the pipeline, plus a growing number of craft breweries, among other independent businesses. During lockdown the borough saw house prices boom, with Rightmove listing Wigan as the third most desirable area in the UK for homebuyers, a fact my proud Wiganer husband loves to share.

As a parent of an almost one year old, I have all the good intentions to put the lessons of Epic Fail into practice… and none of the experience. I’m sure there are parts I will fail at quite spectacularly, and despite the relentless pressure on mothers, I am looking forward to that journey. Alongside the kids, I’ve taken on board the message that success and failure doesn’t have to be either/or, rather a mixture can get us to a place of ultimately succeeding – just like the happy squirrels, crossing their bridge.