Mr Bigg's Blog A blog about politics, theology, education and the rest…


“Good enough” never is

Posted by Mike

I had an hour or so to kill yesterday and so I took a wander around Hinchingbrooke Hospital. As I was leaving I noticed the Circle Partnership Credo emblazoned on the wall. I'll reproduce the Principles from it here:

Our Principles
We are above all the agents of our patients. We aim to exceed their expectations every time so that we earn their trust and loyalty. We strive to continuously improve the quality and the value of the care we give our patients.
We empower our people to do their best. Our people are our greatest asset. We should select them attentively and invest in them passionately. As everyone matters, everyone who contributes should be a Partner in all that we do. In return, we expect them to give their patients all that they can.
We are unrelenting in the pursuit of excellence. We embrace innovation and learn from our mistakes. We measure everything we do and we share the data with all to judge. Pursuing our ambition to be the best healthcare provider is a never-ending process. 'Good enough' never is.

As you can see, it is full of laudable ideas that are hard to disagree with. But look again at that last sentence:

"Good enough" never is.

I'll be 33 tomorrow and I'm tired. I'm not just tired because I have a slightly off colour child at home; I'm tired, in part, because of the well-intentioned but damaging "Good enough never is" (GENI) culture that has developed recently.

I'm tired for the staff in hospitals like Hinchingbrooke who are faced every days with words and phrases like "unrelenting", "continuously improve" and "never-ending process". There's an exhausting feeling that nothing is ever good enough, no amount of honest effort and good practice is acceptable, no quality of patient care is high enough. GENI.

I'm tired for teachers. Teachers face a constant sense that if you're not getting better you're getting worse. If your results aren't improving year on year there's a problem. If you're not constantly developing your practice then you are letting the students down. Hit that target? Here's another one to keep you busy. What are you doing to help FSM students? SEND students? G&T students? EAL students? Perfectly average middle-of-the-road students? GENI.

I'm tired for schools. When I was younger satisfactory meant neither laudable nor culpable, neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. A satisfactory school was precisely that. Not great, not terrible. No-one thought that "satisfactory" was great and people worked to improve things. Now satisfactory means "requires improvement". What an exhausting phrase (with all of the inspection and oversight that goes with it). Even "good" schools must be constantly striving and relentlessly pursuing outstanding status (even though only a few schools can be "outstanding" by definition). GENI

I'm tired for pupils in schools. I suspect that there are plenty of students in our schools who have almost never had a piece of work that simply says: "Well done! This is a great piece of work!" If teachers don't set targets for improvement (however minuscule) then we are "enemies of progress". Poor kids! Nothing they do is ever quite enough! I'm sure many teachers will attest an increase in mental health concerns, often among bright and well-motivated girls, because of that feeling. GENI.

Good enough for what?

If we say that "good enough" never is, then the obvious question that arises is "good enough for what?" What's this "good enough" not good enough for? I'm not suggesting for a moment that we should all put our feet up, do the bare minimum and say "it'll do" every day. There are thousands of things that can (and should) get better. However, we need to be careful of the messages we give out. If someone has genuinely and honestly done their job as well as they can, is developing and getting better in some way, and is committed to what they are doing then we can and must say: "GOOD ENOUGH!" In the early days of my career (when I noticed less GENI language) I wanted to improve and grow as a teacher. I read things to improve my practice, I tried new ideas, I put effort into my own development. Not because I was told to, but because I wanted to. Most human beings want to be good at stuff. Most of us recognise areas for development and seek (within reason) to act on them. The moment GENI-type language comes in (even implicitly) the incentive for self-development goes out of the window. Why bother trying to get better if it'll never be good enough?

All of this is to say that I'm worried about GENI-language. It's laudable intentions can often be counter-productive. While I'm sure that there are some for whom "good enough" means a vague attempt in the right kind of direction, I'd hope that for the majority "good enough" means exactly that and we should acknowledge it as such.

And so, some practical suggestions (first 3 for teachers):

  1. The next time you mark some work make a point of identifying students who have really worked hard and made progress. Set them the following target: "Enjoy a night off school work and tell your mum that Mr X says you deserve something special for dinner".
  2. The next time you observe a colleague teaching a really great lesson make a point of identifying all of the good things you can. If students enjoy their learning and are making progress make it clear that you were pleased with the lesson, mention all of the good points and leave it at that. Only identify areas for improvement if specifically asked.
  3. Challenge nit-picking targets once in a while. Ask the person setting the target: "Was this work good enough?" If they say yes, then suggest that they leave it at that.
  4. The next time you are tempted to complain about something ask yourself, "Was what I'm complaining about good enough?" If it was just a mistake or someone having a bad day rather than representing a systemic failure then perhaps just leave your complaint unvoiced.
  5. Be kind to yourself! If something you've done is genuinely good enough and you can't reasonably do any more, then let it be just that.

Let's try to put the GENI back in the bottle. (Sorry, I couldn't resist).