Why Governors should reward failure - RSA

Why governors should reward failure

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  • Picture of Tom Gilliford
    Tom Gilliford
    Former Project Engagement Manager
  • Education
  • Schools
  • Fellowship

We invite school governors to take on board the words of Edward Land, who said, "an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail." With this in mind, they should feel confident in rewarding educators who have the courage to innovate, even if that innovation leads to failure.

In the last five years the percentage of children eligible for Free School Meals who achieved an A*- C in GCSE Maths and English has not risen above 37.9%*. Creative solutions are needed when over 60% of the most disadvantaged pupils in the English education system are failing to gain the grades vital to improving their life chances. If we keep on doing what we have always done, then we will continue a cycle of disadvantage and inequality.

However, if we create genuine and long-lasting change it must come from an empowered workforce of educators, and not from yet more top down directives that increase pressure and devalue experience gained from years at the chalk-face. 

The RSA is working closely with school governors across the country; a group uniquely placed to promote the power to create in schools. Governors not only have the power to give a school space in which to try new things, they can also work to make this change organic, low risk and in line with the character of the school. We are collecting case studies and personal accounts of schools where governors have been at the forefront of developing a school’s creative capacity.

A recent OECD survey found that 75% of teachers feel that they would not be materially rewarded for innovation. This is hardly surprising when you consider the pressures of a continual programme of performance appraisal where pay and progression are based on, for example, exam results, grades from no-notice lesson observations, learning-walks and exercise book audits. These factors combined create a culture where error is unacceptable. Who can blame a teacher for not wanting to try something new, when failure may mean reprimand in place of promotion? Governors can change this culture by making schools a place where it is safe to try and sometimes fail. 

The RSA believes that governors are especially well positioned to improve the creative capacities of our schools as they are required to set the strategic direction and vision of a school. We want to work with them to make the school environment one where experimentation is rewarded and lessons from our failures are valued as much as our successes. To make this a reality, the RSA has come up with three things governors could promote in their schools: 

  1. Educators who try something new should be rewarded, even if it doesn't work out 
  2. Innovative projects should be excluded from performance appraisals 
  3. Schools should be held accountable for the development of the creative capacities of staff and students

What each of these points looks like in an individual school context will be for governors and school leaders to decide for themselves. Governing bodies are a wonderful example of devolved local power and as such can ensure that progress happens in line with the needs of a school and the community it serves.

Encouraging pupils to keep trying new things in the face of failure and disappointment is something that every school does every day. Isn’t it time staff were encouraged in the same way?

Fellowship in action

Rod Hyde FRSA is a school governor at Helsby High School and is working with teachers to make the vision of creative learning a reality. He and the head teacher support staff and pupils to work with the Manufacturing Institute’s Fab Lab, in Ellesmere Port. The pupils are being given an insight into cutting-edge technology and are learning to build two 3D printers of their own.

This project does not form part of the National Curriculum nor can its results be quantified and published in league tables. The project could have been a disaster, with pupils missing vital lesson time and learning nothing to support exam outcomes, but Rod and the school leadership were willing to take a chance. Their reward is a group of year 9s engaged in manufacturing processes that will be vital to tomorrow’s economy. All innovative projects carry a risk of failure. However, by supporting staff, governors like Rod and his head teacher can minimise this risk and make teachers feel like it is safe to take the chance. 

Next steps... 

Are you a governor? Take our governor’s survey and let us know what you are doing, or would like to be doing, to promote creative thought in your school.  

Get in touch with us, on twitter by tweeting @tom_gilliford using the hashtag #RSAcreatespace and join in the conversation. 

If you're not already an RSA Fellow and you support our mission of 21st century enlightenment, find out more about joining us

Tom is Project Engagement Manager, working to connect Fellows with the RSA’s research. Email or follow him on Twitter at @tom_gilliford


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  • We are absolutely missing the value of failure and how to use it to move forwards in our schools. Teachers and students all need to fail to succeed, if that makes any sense. 

  • Excellent article - risk taking and having the confidence to work differently are key to enabling all pupils to access their skills, helping them to explore rather than cram.