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Don't say the F-word!

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 18 August 2005

Strange but true, one of the motions being debated at the coming conference of the English-based Professional Association of Teachers is to ban the word “fail” from the classroom.

Based on the belief that failing children is bad for their self-esteem and, given enough effort and time, that every child is capable of success, the motion reads: “Conference believes it is time to delete the word ‘fail’ from the educational vocabulary to be replaced with the concept of ‘deferred success’.”

Given that Australians love competition, backing winners and achieving success, the same could not happen here. Wrong.


The sad fact is that one of the more loopy education fads to have taken over Australian education is non-competitive and non-graded assessment. Since the early ’90s, states and territories have adopted what is called an outcomes-based approach to education (OBE).

Central to OBE is the argument that all students have different abilities and talents, so they cannot be compared, and that it is wrong to have tests where some pass and some fail.

Most parents can remember the old school report cards with grades and percentages. Not only did we have regular exams starting at Year 7, but each student was ranked against classmates and “E” or “N” meant “not passed”.

In the classroom there were regular tests in spelling and mental arithmetic on the basis that kids wanted to compete and there was nothing wrong with being pressured to perform. Compare this approach with what currently passes as a report card. In Victoria, for example, student progress is measured by such fuzzy descriptions as “established, consolidating, beginning” and many parents argue that reports are too politically correct.

To quote from a national survey on school reports: “Parents consider there is a tendency, more common in primary schools, to avoid facing or telling hard truths.

“Parents understand how difficult it may be for teachers to convey ‘bad’ news, but nevertheless they indicate that they want a ‘fair and honest’ assessment, in plain language, of the progress of their children.”


It's also true that the first time Australian students hit an external, competitive and high-risk exam is in Year 12. Many students float through primary and secondary school with a false sense of their ability and leave school with unrealistic expectations.

For years, groups such as the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English and the Australian Education Union have argued that competitive exams are wrong, that it's bad to rank students and that everyone should be rewarded.

The Australian Council of Deans of Education also argues against tests and examinations on the basis that it is wrong to make students learn correct answers and to put them in a situation where they have to compete.

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Article edited by Melanie Olding.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in the Herald Sun on July 27, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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