Mary-Jo Hill

04 Jan 2017
What do students get from (schools, teachers, headteachers) constant drive for perfection? The 'good enough' concept might have the answer.

I recently saw a look of panic in the eyes of the headteacher that I was talking to when I suggested whether the action that they had taken may be seen as ‘good enough’. A slightly dangerous comment to make perhaps in the cut-throat climate of excellence for all. Eyebrows raised and perhaps our shared ambition was not completely in sync at that moment in time but in a situation where the staff are ‘in waiting’ until Ofsted arrives in the next eighteen months, it is hard not to feel the palpable fear oozing from the very core of the staffroom. We know very well the toll on the recruitment and retention of teachers on the constant drive for perfection. What do the students get from this I wonder?  Recently, however, there are calls to drop the outstanding tag due to ‘holding schools back’.

Russell Hobby, head of the NAHT, called for the top grading to be “eliminated” as the “threat” of losing the ranking leads many headteachers to avoid taking risks and making changes within their schools.

Speaking at an education conference run by the Education Policy Institute, Mr Hobby warned that it “can be as hard to recruit a new head to an outstanding school as it is to recruit a head to a school in special measures.

“The only way is down,” he said.

“The existence of an outstanding grade in practice appears to me to constrain the behaviour of some of those school leaders that should be most independent, autonomous and confident in their own judgements,” he continued.

The pressure in perfection

High ambitions are noble and important, but there can also come a point when they become the sources of terrible trouble and unnecessary panic. One way of undercutting our more reckless ideals and perfectionism was pioneered by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. Winnicott specialised in relationships between parents and children. In his clinical practice, he often met with parents who felt like failures: perhaps because their children hadn’t got into the best schools, or because there were sometimes arguments around the dinner table or the house wasn’t always completely tidy.

Winnicott’s crucial insight was that the parents’ agony was coming from a particular place: excessive hope. Their despair was a consequence of a cruel and counterproductive perfectionism. So as to help them reduce this, Winnicott developed a charming phrase: what he called ‘the good enough parent’. No child, he insisted, needs an ideal parent. They just need an OK, pretty decent, usually well-intentioned, sometimes grumpy but basically reasonable father or mother. Winnicott wasn’t saying this because he liked to settle for second-best, but because he knew the toll exacted by perfectionism – and realised than in order to remain more or less sane (which is a very big ambition already) we have to learn not to hate ourselves for failing to be what no ordinary human being ever really is anyway. The concept of ‘good enough’ was invented as an escape from dangerous ideals. It began in relation to parenthood, but it can be applied across life more generally, especially around work and love.

Transferring this concept to the notions of teaching sounds realistic. Yes, we wish to sometimes be the best, but we also need to realise and teach children that to be good enough for most of the time with flashes of brilliance, in addition, is a modern and sustainable way to learn.