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Why do some children succeed and others do not?

Andrew Cook, Headmaster at King's House School, explores why some young people succeed and others fail to reach their potential

Posted by Julian Owen | March 05, 2018 | Teaching

Over the years I have often been asked why do some children succeed, and others do not? First of all, this very much begs the question ‘what is success?’ Of course, there can be many definitions of success; some might say that success, like happiness is a mere state of mind. However, in the educational sense, I would venture to suggest that the answer to this question is considerably more complex than it might at first seem.

Every child has the ability to achieve at a certain level – everyone is different and indeed every child is different. Some have re-phrased the ‘success’ question and asked why some children reach their potential and others do not.

Aspiration has, over the years, become a controversial word. However, in education, we should not fear to use it, for children themselves are not in the least bit inhibited in expressing their aspirations and ambitions. Incidentally, in over 30 years in the teaching profession I’ve never met one child who did not aspire to become something of worth.

On both sides of the political spectrum we come across the view or implication that people should know their place and be content with their lot rather than reaching for the stars. Many pay lip service to social mobility but this often tends to run skin deep. 

We can draw parallels with potential in a variety of other disciples and areas of success. Harry Kane, for example, is probably Britain’s finest world-class home-grown footballer at the present time. Statistically, there would have been a good number of others born around the same time as Harry Kane who were born with the same level of skill and potential to be great footballers. Why then, did they not make good on their potential? In any given sphere, there are similarly many who have the ability and potential to succeed… However, a very large number do not fulfil their potential. Some argue that this is down to social class, discrimination of one kind or another, or just sheer bad luck. This overlooks the reality that many people who succeed in life come from modest backgrounds and just work very hard to succeed… ask Alan Sugar. As Henry Ford said nearly a hundred years ago, “It’s funny, the harder I work the luckier I get.” In other words, luck had nothing to do with it.

The time has therefore come, I believe, to take a long, hard, unprejudiced look at the reasons why some young people succeed or more importantly, why many fail to achieve their potential. In doing so, we are bound to encounter much muddy water, for those who have a vested interest in asserting that in order to improve matters we must simply spend more and more taxpayer’s money and give government a stronger hand to further intervene and influence, have already claimed ownership of this issue. 

Those who take this view that money and government intervention are the answer have little or no interest in seeking to identify the factors that lead individuals to success and the forces they find themselves up against, for theirs is more of a political agenda than an educational one. While only a fool would argue that a well-funded education system is not more desirable and effective than an underfunded one, such matters are not so simple. The phrase ‘money cannot buy success’ is as old as the hills, and for good reason. It is as true today as when first uttered countless many years ago. 


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