Just before my little ‘break’ from social media and public communication [hello again!] I read something sad: according to the Children’s Society’s annual Good Childhood Report, children in the UK have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across Europe.
The report found that ‘a particularly British fear of failure’ was at the route of our childrens’ low levels of wellbeing – levels which, it can only be assumed, have plummeted further during the Coronavirus epidemic and a grades fiasco of epic proportions.
So, as many children start a new school year in some of the strangest circumstances in recent history, and grown-ups face employment challenges the likes of which we may not have previously encountered, it seems as good a time as any to discuss the thorny issue of failure.
The arts and education
I’m no psychologist, but *dons boffin beret* I do have a research interest in the relationship between creativity and wellbeing. In recent years our education system has been vacuum packed into a joyless itinerary where creativity, and it’s associated ‘fluff’, has been sucked out and discarded.
In my local community school, which was built in the early 1990s, the arts have suffered a series of blows. The school was designed with a purpose-built drama studio, three large art classrooms across the hall from a further two home technology rooms where sewing and design were taught. Next to the drama studio was a separate sound-proofed suite devoted to music – two large classrooms and three practice rooms. When I was a teen my ‘indie’ band practiced there after school and during the week peripatetic music teachers taught instruments to children during class time.
These brand new premises were created after the amalgamation of the local boys and girls school into a single co-ed comprehensive. The school was not particularly aspiring, it didn’t push students towards Oxbridge or pressurise brighter kids to get high grades. I remember thinking that school was a bit crap, but when I look back I see how lucky we were to have these facilities. It signalled to us, in basic material form, that the arts, culture and creativity were important, that they deserved to take up space in our school and in our lives.
Roll on a few decades and we are in a different place. The school’s art budget has been pared back. There are less art teachers. The head of drama now teaches English. There is only one music teacher, and she can’t offer A-Level. When I asked someone what was happening, they just shrugged and said ‘budget cuts’.
We all know what that means. We all know that when budgets shrink, the arts are the first out the door. It’s taken as a given. English, maths, science… what do you mean you don’t understand?
Cuts to schools are ideological and destructive in ways that will cost the taxpayer far more in the long run than the small fry savings made at close range. We live in an affluent society. Yet our public sector is cut, in some areas, to the point where it lies beyond recovery. We have all seen the horrifying PPE crisis engulf the NHS this year – a wholly preventable situation. It took a pandemic for the public to see what is going on behind the stage scenery.
The impact of education cuts is less readily visible. The effects of cutting the creative arts in schools are difficult to pin point. Creativity takes many forms, and takes place in many areas of life, not just the arts and crafts, but the latter provide a gateway through which many people find creative outlet. Sometimes we discover an activity we enjoy, or sometimes we notice a process we find exhilarating, the realisation of a capacity we hadn’t before known. Creative pursuits create a sense of self-efficacy, develop self-esteem and contribute to wellbeing.
Not all schools have cut the arts, and some are now becoming centres of excellence in certain subjects. A nearby school in the next town, for example, teaches textiles at GCSE level. Yet the kids that get the chance to go to this school are the ones whose parents fight for it and are prepared (and able) to pay to ferry their children across the Peaks day-in day-out for years. Having a few good schools that provide arts subjects is not good enough. A child at 10 or 11 doesn’t yet know what they will take pleasure in. Their futures shouldn’t be funnelled at such a young age.
Creativity and failure
This brings me back to the Children’s Society report and the idea that UK children’s lower happiness levels relate to a fear of failure. Failing is part of life, but in an education system geared up to constant assessments and gradings throughout the school career of each child, failure has become a thing that MUST NOT HAPPEN.
When we drop subjects like the arts and crafts from the school syllabus, we lose more than just the ability to think in a different way, or to create with our hands. It’s not even – as is often posited – that the arts give children a break from the ‘heavy’ core subjects. Done right, art is exhausting, it’s not a restful doss as some educators seem to think.
The thing that the arts and crafts – and indeed any kind of making – teaches us, is that failure is necessary. And yet ‘failure’ has become synonymous with a negative outcome. There is something final and underlined about the word FAIL.
Should we avoid the word ‘failure’ because it has negative connotations? Or should we pare the negative connotations away? To fail is such a loaded term, and yet all it means is that you aimed for something and didn’t quite hit the mark. Maybe you missed it by a mile. Does it matter?
There are so many sayings related to failure and how to deal with it. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’, ‘fail hard’, ‘success is 99 per cent failure’. People who create, who make, who think and who continually strive understand intuitively that failing is just part of the process.
Of course it’s not simply about including the arts and crafts in the school syllabus. The way the arts are taught matters too. In art, we learn there are no wrong answers. Yet when children reach the stage where they try to draw representationally, and struggle because the images do not look like what they see before them, they often give up. ‘I can’t draw!’ they wail (and continue to do so into adulthood), deciding they are neither artistic nor creative.
Some teachers try to show children alternative methods of self-expression and emphasise that not all have to be based on accurate representation, but in a way this avoids the issue the child understands all too well – they tried to do a thing, they ‘failed’, and therefore they must give up. They are second rate, art is not for them. Most art teachers are not trained how to show the child to ‘see’ (if you feel you were never taught, look at Betty Edward’s book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for a brilliantly simple introduction). Learning to see takes time, lots of it, and dedication. It requires the individual to fail and fail again until what they draw begins to resemble what meets the eye.
I am not for a minute claiming representational art is the win – the correct way – and the rest is a fail. What I’m trying to show is how our relationship with failure is conditioned in all kinds of peculiar ways in our schooling. And much of it seems to be geared up to the idea that if you show no immediate natural aptitude then you drop that subject and move onto something where you are more likely to pass. Of course it makes sense when we need grades to move on in life, but what else does this teach us other than to avoid failure?
It’s sad and foolish – because all success is built on failure. I’m definitely not the first to point out that we have to first learn how to fail. To not fear things going wrong. To fear the inevitable leads to poor self-esteem and the low levels of wellbeing the Childrens’ Society report flags.
Failure and sewing
Naturally, this leads me on to my own favourite creative outlet: sewing (got there in the end folks!). In garment sewing (as opposed to, perhaps, more generally ‘textiles’) I think it is fair to say the assertion that ‘there are no wrong answers’ is, well, not exactly correct. You can sew on two right sleeves if you want, but you will be uncomfortable and probably won’t wear what you spent time making.
Fancy details and finishes are a bonus, but in terms of learning the craft, sewing your trousers back to front would be considered a ‘sewing fail’.
Of course this ‘fail’ is only a problem if, for you, failure is insurmountable and to be avoided at all costs. Succeed or fall off the cliff edge.
In reality, when we sew we fail all the time. I repeat, ALL THE TIME. No matter how much perfectly aligned top-stitching you see pasted over Instagram, you can bet your bottom dollar that there was a slew of wonky thread unpicked beforehand.
It doesn’t matter how many times I learn to stay-stitch a neckline, I still forget and stretch poor innocent garments beyond their reasonable limits. Every time we make we learn and reinforce new and hopefully better habits. Failing becomes normal, to be expected. When we succeed, we rejoice. Success means something when you have been through the ringer and understand how you got there.
Ever looked back at an old make from when you started sewing? Do you recall the glee with which you created and then went on to wear the garment? Have your feelings since changed? Do you notice things you would not consider a success today? Much like the theory of creative destruction in industry, we are locked into a continual cycle of innovation, cohabitation, destruction and replacement. When we learn a craft, we constantly reinvent what it means to be successful. What was a success five years ago may no longer be considered a win.
Do we feel sad about those early attempts? I can only speak for myself. I don’t think it’s sad they didn’t work out – it’s interesting. I look back and I see progression. I’m never at some hallowed end point. I’ve never ‘learned’ sewing. Life is a journey, the cliche goes. So is learning a craft. You never arrive. You wouldn’t want to.
So, for the kids feeling like the cup is half empty, what can we do? Well, if they are your kids, you will no doubt be opening up creative horizons for them at home. For the kids without such opportunities, it’s a tough one. We need to implore our MPs to do something about the dearth of creative arts in our schools today. We need to encourage a new dialogue about success and failure. We need school systems to be reformulated so education is not primarily an either/or pass/fail proposition. We need subjects that teach children how to fail, how to learn from failure, how to keep trying and, if they choose to walk away, how to hold their head up high and know it was because that activity just wasn’t for them.
How did your education inform the creative interests or occupations of adulthood? Has sewing or another creative activity given you a different view of failure and of yourself as a person? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!