Skip to main content

Bland obedience

Gerald Haigh examines a grammatical mutation that has spread like margarine. A year or so ago, the Falmer Press published Developing Quality Schools edited by Colin Bayne-Jardine and Peter Holly. "Such schools," wrote Holly in the final chapter, "have quality processes that lead to quality products."

Three or four years ago we would have looked askance at a sentence like this, wondering what on earth it had to do with education. Now, though, "quality", magically transformed into an adjective, is all around us. Where a teaching practice supervisor would once say "Quite a good lesson Miss Smith", he or she will now scribble, on a pre-printed form, "Steph, this was super. You used a thought-out range of strategies which combined to provide the children with a quality learning experience."

Part of it, surely, has something to do with the word itself. Just say it to yourself and see what I mean. It sort of rolls around the mouth, starting at the back of the palate and finishing just behind the front teeth. And the soft "w" sound, closely followed by that limpid "l" combine to provide the sensation of chewiness that you can only otherwise get from half a pound of boiled tripe.

Still, good mouth feel (a concept much used in the spreadable margarine industry by the way) cannot be the whole story. The word 'voluptuous' after all, replete as it is with oral gratification, has little currency in the discourse of management. "Give it time," did I hear you say?

If we want to know where infatuation with the word "quality" stems from we need look no further than the drive, by industrial management, for improvement and reliability which had its original roots in post-War Japan. The followers of the influential late management guru W Edwards Deming, for example use the word "quality" continuously, as a talisman.

In a much quoted speech praising Deming, in 1980, William Conway, head of the Nashua Corporation of New Hampshire, used the word "quality" over and over again - "greater emphasis on quality", "giant strides in quality", "statistical control of quality". Deming and Conway, to be fair, were always mentally setting off "quality" against "quantity", and both stopped short of using "quality" as an adjective. That practice, I suspect, crept in when Deming's followers started talking of "Total Quality Management". Suddenly, a linguistic barrier was down. Because we had "quality management", it was possible to have quality everything else: "quality resources", "quality training", "quality time" and "quality relationships".

Education, of course, was not to be left out of this. Industry's love affair with quality coincided with the arrival of local management of schools, when heads suddenly realised that it was OK for them to start power-dressing and buying better office furniture. As the concepts of management entered schools, hard on their heels was the word "quality".

Which brings us to the the point we have now reached, where we have "quality schools" and where "a good lesson" has become "a quality learning experience".

The intentions are, of course, entirely honourable. Acceptance of the idea that schools are both partners and customers of their local authority, for example (which is what the Bayne-JardineHolly book is about) is long overdue, and one effect of the national curriculum and OFSTED has been to concentrate teachers' minds upon the point in time and space where the child is supposed to learn something.

All the same, it seems to me that teachers - who surely have particular responsibilities in this regard - might do both the mother tongue and their own credibility a service were they to consider replacing "quality" with "good" (or even "very good") in all appropriate circumstances.

It would be a small but significant improvement entirely in line with the principles of Deming himself. What could be better, after all, than to strive for good schools where good lessons take place?

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you