Mayfield School Headmistress Antonia Beary on the importance of getting wrong answers for the right outcome in future careers and life

Our role, as parents and teachers, is to give our young people the skills and the confidence to be the best version of themselves. Nobody achieves success (however you define it) without making mistakes, but the pressure on our young people to be perfect – from social media, wider societal influences and the spectre of GCSEs and A levels – often clouds their perspective. Education should not simply be about what we learn, but how we learn.

Creating an environment where individuals are able to make their own mistakes, and learn from them, should be a priority for us all – an environment where pupils are not always right, but mistakes will not scar for life. To expect a child always to achieve A* grades, be in the first team and have lead protagonist roles in every play is unrealistic and is not going to create the resilient individuals we need – those who can respond to the challenges of the age.

This is where creative and performing arts and team sports have a fundamental role to play. Our foundress at Mayfield was ahead of her time 150 years ago in placing creativity at the heart of our curriculum and encouraging an appreciation of interdisciplinary approaches. To be a good scientist you need to be creative; to be a fine artist you need discipline, structure and perspective. Much maligned and often seen as the poor relations, creative subjects, along with sport, are the first to be squeezed out of the curriculum. This is at best short-sighted, and I am convinced has the potential to destroy independent thinking and stifle creativity and teamwork in all sectors of the economy.

Mayfield School on the positive value of making mistakes
Teaching young people to think independently and take risks is critical, says Mayfield School Head Antonia Beary

In art, as in life, there is seldom just one right answer, one interpretation, one correct approach. It is not possible to play an instrument, recite a speech, draw or sculpt an object perfectly the first time you try. To create something really good, you need to put in a considerable amount of time and effort. This is why studying these creative subjects is so important. You cannot stay within your comfort zone: you have to make mistakes, adapt, revise and learn to make progress.

We need to be educating girls and boys to make mistakes and take calculated risks, not simply to improve and broaden their horizons but to ensure they are able to function and contribute constructively to the society in which they live, and in which we want them to define and lead. It takes different approaches to bring out the best in girls and boys. Not better, just different, and of course there are some similarities and shared approaches. Nonetheless, creating an environment where girls feel comfortable to get things wrong without panicking, stressing or losing confidence in themselves and their ability, is an art.

“We want a generation who can recognise fake news, who won’t be short-sighted and who will challenge conventions when it is needed”

To do well at GCSE and A level, you need to learn the answers that the examiner wants you to give. As teachers, we have a responsibility to provide our students with the information and tools with which to achieve the best possible grades. To discern what someone wants – and provide them with information they need in the form they require it – is a useful skill, so this is an important element of education. But it is not the only one, and sadly it takes on a disproportionate importance in the current education system, overshadowing other more practical skills and talents.  If you have good teachers and work hard you can do very well, without necessarily having to think outside the box or challenge any conventions. However, even if you understand complex concepts and think originally and independently, you won’t necessarily be rewarded with an A*.

We want to be educating a generation who can recognise fake news, who won’t be short-sighted and who will challenge the conventions of contemporary society when it is needed, rather than simply conforming. If we are going to stop this generation making the mistakes we have made, then they need to begin to make their own – sooner, rather than later. The best place for this to happen is in school.

Mayfield School

Further reading: St Margaret’s on listening to the student voice