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“When you lick the lollipop of mediocrity, you suck it forever”

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Response to this letter below.

End-of-year prize-giving evening was their last time. Final year students and teachers fill the Ian Colquhoun Memorial Hall for their last opportunity to say thanks and goodbye.

Where time at school would end, this very same hall was the rendezvous of day’s start for every Palmerston North Boys’ High School (PNBHS) student.

Every morning after form class, students noisily congregated for the school assembly. Chatter turned into pin-drop silence with the Head Boy’s signal, “School stand”. Well-rehearsed, all immediately launched from their benched seats, the School’s principal man has arrived. Approaching the lectern, the Rector lead the Lord’s Prayer. In perfect synchrony, the battalion of students bowed their heads. In keeping the ritual, the Rector addressed the school with daily business, the tirade of achievements, but also the parade of disappointments.

This was life as a PNBHS student. Every morning. Every day.

Overall, Palmerston North is a mediocre sized town in the middle of the Manawatu. On the other hand, PNBHS exceeds the definition of the city. The School produced worthy businessmen, notable academics, and elite sportsmen. The teachers were and still are extraordinary. The Palmy Boys’ legacy stays with students even after leaving the School. Cut me open, and you will see my bleed former PNBHS student rather than University of Auckland alumni.

That’s good, but what about the questionable?

Most school assemblies blended into the day-by-day monotony. I was a young ‘lad’. Whatever was said by Rector or senior staff went straight in without a second thought. My mind was malleable. However, my time at PNBHS was over a decade ago. Now, I have gained some life experience. Time away is time to reflect. In their effort to “develop educated men of outstanding character”, was what the Rector and his communion said entirely appropriate? Or was it regrettable?

Mediocrity is not OK

Whether it be fear of appearing less masculine in the opposite sex’s eyes, a competitive atmosphere, or teachers catering to gender-specific learning styles, “single-sex schooling may mitigate the male disadvantage in educational achievement” (Gibb et al., 2008).

NB: The lower numbers in Year 13 could reflect in that some students gained Level 3 in Year 12 the previous year. Also, National may be results for both boys and girls. I could not find raw data but I would like to know! (Palmerston North Boys’ High School, 2021)

PNBHS had a war against the average and not just beat the average. The goal was to demolish the competition. Even if the other team was staring down the barrel of defeat, the only acceptable action was to put the “foot on the throat”.

After all, nothing is achieved without hard work — Nihil Boni Sine Labore.

And now we are introduced to the humorous innuendo for the hormone-filled imaginative teenager: “When you lick the lollipop of mediocrity, you suck it forever”. Mediocrity is a sickening addiction. Excellence becomes the norm.

What does this tell our young men? Win at all costs. And anything less is failure and an unfathomable sense of shame.

This works well for the winners in our society. Unfortunately, there is limited space on the podium. Does that mean the rest are failures?

Does “outstanding character” encompass ruthless competitive behaviour and results-based self-worth? When we focus on objectives beyond our control and compare ourselves to impossible standards, life turns into a slippery slope.

When life doesn’t go our way, slamming the accelerator is rarely going to work. Instead, self-reflection changes our gears, allowing us to find our passions, our values, what is important, what is our control and what isn’t, what is worth caring about and what is worth forgetting.

Young men need to know the importance of hard work. It’s not aimless painful coal mining, but trying lots of different things, being okay to fail at these things and trying something else.

Once we find what is worth pursuing, we point the needle to our newfound North star and work hard towards that. If our passions align, it won’t feel like hard work.

“The lollipop of mediocrity”, “foot on the throat” — saying this to children is questionable. Our School’s darwinian approach works well for those near the top, but this tells the rest are failures. There is life beyond sports, academics, and trophies. “Outstanding character” is growing up to become a productive member of a community, to be a husband, to be a father, or what every life script one decides to take.

It’s time to open up, not man up

PNBHS was serious business. Grooming checks were regular. No facial hair. Hair was not to be styled or dyed. Hair wasn’t allowed to touch the shirt collar nor go over the ears. Walking past rubbish sacrificed an evening with after-school detention.

And when performance dipped below the impossible standard, the answer was always man up and work harder.

“Man up”, the translation is often to discard your feelings for the task at hand. Thus, sadness, anger and despair swarm in an internal holding pattern of one’s mind and outward display of compassion, happiness, and excitement is discouraged.

My life in the real world has shown me how important it is to have empathy for others. In my job, with my friends and family and even in my community.

Even large firms like Microsoft see the importance of empathy in their workspace (Ray, 2019).

Intelligence is only one part of success. A character also requires emotional intelligence through empathy (Ioannidou & Konstantikaki, 2010). This is the ability to put yourself in others shows, building better cooperation rather than competition.

To have good emotional intelligence starts with understanding one’s own emotions. And with the “win at all costs”, “man up”, and “foot on the throat mentality” being delivered at PNBHS, the emotional maturity of students suffers.

When we look left, and when we look right, the people standing next to us are not our competition to stomp out. They are members of our community.

To a certain extent, “survival of the fittest” is part of nature. But the key to the human race’s success wasn’t an outright race to the top; it was the ability to work together, to understand each other.

Instead of telling our boys to man up, we should be saying that it is okay to open up. The world is abundant and full of kindness if we choose the find it, not scarcity and sadness.


Palmerston North Boys’ High school is a traditionalist school of the Manawatu. School assembly, for the most part, went unnoticed. However, there were glimpses of interest provided by the Rector’s questionable lecturings.

Mediocrity was frowned upon, akin to an addictive “lollipop”. One taste and the unfortunate victim accustoms to a life of unspectacular-ism. The only option was to put the “foot on the throat” and be a winner. And if we were not winning, then we were losing. The only problem was that life isn’t a competition.

On top of this, the man-up culture voided boys to open up emotionally. This is destructive for the individual. Understanding the emotional self is the first step towards developing empathy.

The win-at-all-costs mentality steers away from building “outstanding characters”. Boys leave school to join a cooperative humanity and not a spartan gladiator ring.

Now, I’m interested in your thoughts? Was it a sign of the times? Do you think this is all normal? Or, do you think the Rector should answer to what he had said? Please let me know.


Gibb, S. J., Fergusson, D. M., & Horwood, L. J. (2008). Effects of Single-Sex and Coeducational Schooling on the Gender Gap in Educational Achievement. Australian Journal of Education, 52(3), 301–317.

Ioannidou, F., & Konstantikaki, V. (2010). Empathy and Emotional intelligence: What Is It Really about? International Journal of Caring Sciences, 1(3), 118–123.

Palmerston North Boys’ High School. (2021). Academic Results. Palmerston North Boys’ High School.

Ray, S. (2019, February 13). Empathy and innovation: How Microsoft’s cultural shift is leading to new product development. Innovation Stories.

Response from succeeding Rector of Palmerston North Boys’ High School

I was able to get a response only a few hours after receiving this email.

Good morning Shivan,
Thank you for your interesting email. I remember you from your time at Boys’ High and recall that you were a fine young man. 
So, where to start with a response to your email? I will start by saying how much I enjoyed working with [Mr O’Connor], he was then and remains to this day a good friend of mine. He was a superb Rector. He did things his way and so I can’t answer the whys and the wherefores about his comments. What I can say, however, is that Tim believed, as many of us do, that NCEA was at the forefront of mediocrity not only in the education system, but it had also had a trickle-down effect, so to speak, in other areas of life, particularly for our rangatahi.

So, I can only comment on Boys’ High now. There are some schools for whom win at all costs is almost a mantra, particularly when it is in the sporting arena. Scholarships, poaching, falsifying academic results for top athletes, cheating have all become real issues in NZ school sport. It is appalling and these are things that will never happen at Boys’ High while I am Rector. Some school principals have no principles, disturbingly, when it comes to winning a rugby competition, or a hockey competition etc.

Here, we want young men to be the best they can be. Now, while that might sound like a trite and rather cliched sentiment, it is something that we can encourage in our young men regardless of ability. I often talk to the boys about how it isn’t someone’s ability that counts – it is their attitude; we are all good at different things. We want the boys to give their best and if that means a young lad working his backside off to just scrape through then that’s all we can ask for. The young man who does that in maths, for example, may be outstanding at art, or woodwork, or drama.

Our leadership programme has morphed into a character education programme, which enables us to reach all of our young men. Our aim is that our young men, regardless of ability, will leave our gates as good men who will, as you note in your article, be good husbands/partners/fathers/community members. To have a good moral compass. To be good people.
We are still competitive, because in many ways life still is. There is a time and place, though, and I speak to the boys about abstract nouns such as courtesy, empathy, compassion and kindness, and how they seem to be harder to find these days. Mind you, the boys would probably switch off in assembly the moment I mention nouns…

You’ll be happy to know that we still have outstanding teachers at Boys’ High. We continue to expect excellence from the boys even when NCEA ‘passes’ can be attained with 33% of a paper successfully completed.  When it comes to comparing NCEA data, there are lies, damned lies and statistics as Benjamin Disraeli said, and it is difficult to compare results, especially when some schools offer unlimited re-sits and reassessments. I am aware of one school which herds boys who are at risk of not making NCEA Level 2 into a room for three days and when they come out, voila! 57 NCEA Level 2 credits, thank you very much. We have made significant changes to our Level 1 programme, so that boys can no longer get enough credits in Year 11 to gain Level 1. By making these changes we have been able to gain about six weeks of teaching and learning, rather than assessment time, in every subject.
We have developed our courses at the senior level to include more vocational opportunities. For years, we were an exam school, and those who didn’t fit that mould were consigned to repeating Level 2 physics or whatever, which was a lose-lose for all concerned. We are here to do our best for the boys and so we try to provide them with so many more opportunities that will have meaning for them – we have 73 young men leave in the last year or so to go to apprenticeships, which despite ERO asking about our retention rates, is a real success of our programmes at the senior levels.

I hope that provides a bit of a snapshot of what Boys’ High is like these days. We are still a traditional school – our traditions are important to us, and while some believe that tradition can act as a handbrake to progress, I think not when you use it as a guide to your future. One quote I use often is Gustav Mahler’s “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, it is the preservation of fire”. 
Thank you for getting in touch, Shivan, and all the best.

Nga mihi

I found this response absolutely outstanding. Supporting young men to pursue apprenticeships despite this affecting the retention metric poorly just goes to show that PNBHS is concerned with doing what is better for the students rather than doing what looks good on paper.

I emailed the Rector of the time and I’m still awaiting a response. I’ll keep you posted.

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