The perils of permanent perfection

21st March 2008 at 00:00
The over-use of the word "excellence" in education parlance has become wearisome. But it is also a disturbing term. It is now grossly politicised, along with its partner in crime, "leadership".

To excel is to exceed normal expectations. But we cannot excel all the time. To ask that we should, is creating a culture of threat. We should seek to do well. But the term "excellent", and a presumption of its universality, has connotations of idealised perfection which, if not met, imply you are somehow "lesser". Expecting it all the time is exhausting and causes stress. Demanding it is even worse.

In my view, good is good enough, and indeed good may even be better than great. Why? Because we can relax and breathe. Excellence may even then steal up on us from time to time, emerging from a new culture of ease and positivity. But seeking the perfect society has led to the horrors of history. The thought that we are about to bring in perfection, or indeed must bring it in, can lead us to deem as enemies all those who stand in its way: the lesser people, the imperfect ones. A culture of perfection and universal excellence is a totalitarian one.

You may think this has nothing to do with Scottish education. But it has. The "done to" audit culture of idealised perfection is starting to create just such a culture here: it is a totalitarian one of no right of reply, imposed one-way judgments and wholesale assaults on human dignity. It is destroying careers and breaking people's health. The language of six-point scales and "How good is ... ?" is really saying "How not good are you?" and we will spell out the exact precisely delineated 360-point measurement of your "ungoodness".

So if we now face the curriculum "for excellence", I pose a question: has not every curriculum change sought the current notion of what's best at the time - to be better than what went before? We now have an extremely innovative set of proposals with fresh thinking, building the foundations of learning on holistic and integrative principles.

It is a fair prediction, however, that in 20 years or so, it will be replaced. Excellence is an ideal, an ambition, and it always will be. Curricula come and go. This certainly will not be the last word on the matter and so the term will become dated. In fact, this new curriculum may have a better chance of longer-term durability with a more rounded, meaningful name, reflecting its essential values and purposes.

So what is the incoming curriculum really about? What is essentially new about it? It is about linking learning more directly with meaningful and purposeful contexts. Can't we find a name which reflects that? It is certainly not "The Curriculum for Unrealisable, Unattainable Perfection", so why give it a name which implies that? In its place what about "The Curriculum for Contextual Learning" or "The Curriculum for Meaningful Integration" or "The Curriculum as Context". They say what it is. But they are not very snazzy.

We should seek a more realistic and human-centred title which reflects its core aim of building in contextual relevance and setting out the foundations of lifelong learning. How about "A Curriculum for Life"?

Niall MacKinnon is a headteacher in the Highlands.

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