Crooked road that leads to perfection

18th April 2008 at 01:00
I have a great deal of sympathy with Niall MacKinnon's view that "the over-use of the word 'excellence' in education parlance has become wearisome" (TESS, March 21). He is entirely justified in pointing out that excellence is by definition exceptional, and that even those who are capable of excelling cannot do so all the time.

Walter Humes has speculated that "it can encourage teachers and pupils to take short cuts to achieve desired outcomes" (TESS, August 24, 2007). It is probably unwise to cavil with a colleague who has admitted in these pages that his fondness for detective novels serves to prevent him committing homicide in his professional life. Nevertheless, it behoves me to point out that "excellence" is part of a broader currency that has recently been subject to inflationary pressures.

As someone whose interest in the new curriculum stems from an enduring fascination with the concept of "inclusion", I see A Curriculum for Excellence, billed as "the biggest education reform for a generation", as a prime example of the emphasis on "perfection".

Readers will hardly need to be reminded that the curriculum is to be centred around four "capacities" of education, preparing young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

It is, of course, entirely possible for a young person with a severe learning disability who masters the numbers from 1-10 to be described as a successful learner, even if his achievement lasts only for a day and he has to begin the next day by relearning what he has just forgotten.

However, the small print leaves us in no doubt that "determination to reach high standards of achievement", "openness to new thinking and ideas" and the ability and "to make reasoned evaluations" are the hallmarks of a successful learner. This effectively precludes anyone with, for example, a cognitive disability from ever being so described. Needless to say, this does not do much for an individual's confidence.

The "responsible citizen" and the "effective contributor" are fictions that represent the triumph of hope over experience. They are effectively one and the same person and one that is, by implication at least, economically productive and independent - and thus "normal".

The bottom line is the assumption that all parties to the social contract are, to quote Locke, "free, equal and independent". Or, as the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum put it, "provisions for people who aren't part of the bargain will be an afterthought".

It is for precisely this reason - the very fact of being an afterthought - that the goal of increasing educational inclusion is fundamentally incompatible with that of increasing economic competitiveness and productivity by raising attainment in schools.

It also explains why there will always be flaws in the legislation, and why tinkering with the legislative engine will only lead to dirty hands.

Anne Pirrie is reader in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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