I read a quote the other day in a tweet from Cristina Milos (@surreallyno) that seemed to articulate what I’ve been thinking for a while. It is Bogusky and Winsor (Baked In, 2009): “Why are so many people afraid of so many things, but they’re never afraid of mediocrity?” This holiday, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing about leadership, and I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting friends and colleagues to talk about different aspects of senior leadership and their experiences. So this blog post is the product of some of these conversations, and my thinking afterwards, where I’ve been wrestling with the concept of mediocrity and its seductive and comfortable OK-ness. Well, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me. It doesn’t sit comfortably at all. Mediocrity risks futures. Mediocrity dulls. It saps colour.
Mediocrity in the education system is pernicious. It quietly, unobtrusively seeps into the halls and walls and corridors of schools, and weeps out of them in sighs and unfulfilled futures. And, sometimes, mediocrity is an easy, easy option. It can be the path of least resistance; of fluffy, danced around conversations; of circuitous meetings that end in vagueries; of a seemingly beautiful policy written but not enacted well; a pen decisively dropped on a table, and a self-congratulatory biscuit. But under that suffocating quilt of mediocrity masquerading as a super-hero cloak of leadership is the hollow ring of that’ll do-ness, of document process-ness but not thinking of people, of churning out what we think Ofsted wants-ness. I do not accept this is morally justifiable.
Being a school leader is hard. Wrong decisions can be made. We’re human. Sometimes high stakes myopia sets in and leaders set off on paths where angels fear to tread. Sometimes knee-jerk actions abound. But mediocrity is a complacency, an inertia. This is not OK. It gambles with kids’ futures.
Mediocrity gnaws purpose and is a pestle and mortar to ambition. It clings tightly to the excuse of “Well, our kids! What do you expect?” and patronisingly eye-rolls the communities schools serve. And at its worst, mediocrity luxuriates on a chaise longue of low expectations, fanning away the irritation of moral imperative and languorously tossing aside the annoyance of improving things, because we’re actually doing OK.
Mediocrity conjures the illusion of Do you know what? We’re pretty good! when kids are getting an inconsistent deal. Mediocrity is a potent alchemy where teachers and leaders chase their tails in its cloying smoke, growing wearier and wearier as the year goes on, trudging towards the end of term, knees buckling. Mediocrity blames. Mediocrity toxifies. Mediocrity is an excuse-finder. Mediocrity blames teachers for outcomes that aren’t good enough when, given the right conditions, those same teachers could be flourishing and growing and loving their jobs. But mediocrity never looks at itself. The mirror is left untouched.
The tragedy is that mediocrity becomes the new normal, and boy does it take root. Lives of pupils and staff are not as good as they could be. Smiles half-hearted; eyes dulled. And bright futures much harder to reach for those kids who don’t quite get to where they should have done.
So, what to consider? School leaders, this is about equality of opportunity. It is about a high-quality education for all being an absolute right. We can’t risk children’s futures on a “That’ll do” maxim. Ask yourself: would I be happy to send my own son/daughter/niece/nephew/brother/sister/cousin or any other young person I love to my school? ‘Cos if the answer is no, then have a word with yourself. Do something about it. Because if it’s not good enough for them, then how on earth is it good enough for any other child? That’ll do, just simply won’t do.