‘Erroring’ – Come on, girls – get it wrong!

Why failure is the new success

Driving into school a week or so back, enjoying the Today programme, I was arrested by the rich American tones of an interviewee approving ‘erroring’. Whatever the affront to language of this zero-derivation neologism (if my memory of linguistics at University serves me right), it lodged in my head. It has something important to say to parents and teachers of biddable, able super-conscientious girls everywhere. As we all know, learning to ‘fail better’ [Beckett] is paradoxically the best route to success. Girls need to find the grit to abandon the stifling fear of failure and excessive self-deprecation and go for some energetic errorring!

It is not news that girls have to be encouraged towards the intellectual risk-taking of their male peers. Oh, for the chutzpah of the under-prepared adolescent male! I recommend Helen Fraser’s recent persuasive article in The Sunday Times: ‘Let Modesty Blaze’, which shockingly reminds us that the confidence gap begins early, remains in place throughout life and has significant implications on girls’ careers. For instance, the article tells us that women, “show much more anxiety [than boys] at every stage of the career search”. Oxford’s female undergraduates are being held back from applying for jobs in the highest-paying professions such as investment banking and management consultancy because they don’t think they are good enough to get them. What an indictment of our society it is that Oxford University is now holding ‘career confidence classes’ for its female students.

The truth is we need to start explicitly building career confidence in girls from much earlier on. One of our goals must be to train our girls into high aspirations and into the assurance which their male peers adopt so effortlessly. If it doesn’t happen in schools like this, where will it happen? We are lucky at the High School– role models that can challenge these well-trod paths towards “self-selection out of the best-paid jobs” surround our girls. The soon-to-be-launched High School Association will unite parents and alumnae in a powerful network for new school leavers, growing the confidence of young women across the county. Parents and alumnae can be key forces for establishing our girls’ high expectations and reducing the fear of failure.

Has resilience and confidence ever been more important for school-leaving young women? Let’s face it, in fact, let’s celebrate it: routes through our students’ 50 years or so in the workforce are unlikely to be entirely error-free and straightforward. The turns in the road, the blind alleys, the career dead-ends must be welcomed. This is the stuff of life that builds confidence, clarity and character.

Time and again prospective High School parents tell me that they have chosen this school because it breeds confidence. Whether it’s that Year 8 girl, coming through my Open Door last week to ask to give a whole school assembly on the iniquities of palm oil production; or an uncertain Year 12 tentatively asking me about a stretch-university application; we encourage our girls to put themselves into positions that demand a risk or two and require confidence and courage, or at least the appearance of it.

Make no mistake, girls, this is the job of a school like ours. Or rather, make mistakes. Challenge yourself; get it wrong and embrace the error!


Jenny Brown, Headmistress, St Albans High school for Girls

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