Too much talk of excellence

24th August 2007 at 01:00
The over-zealous pursuit of "excellence" can lead in unfortunate directions. Consider what has happened in elite sport over the summer.

We have had the fiasco of the Tour de France, where several leading competitors have been forced to withdraw because of various drug-related offences. In international athletics, some major names have returned, following bans for taking illegal substances. During the Open golf championship, there was the suggestion that it was only a matter of time before random drug testing would become mandatory.

Drug-taking is an extreme form of cheating, but other ways of seeking to gain an unfair advantage are commonplace in top-class sport "professional" fouls in football, verbal abuse directed at batsmen in cricket, gamesmanship in tennis. These examples cast some doubt on the "character building" potential of intense competition. If winning becomes all-important, then the positive qualities associated with health and exercise are undermined.

Surely the pursuit of "excellence" in education is immune from these deplorable tendencies? After all, it is concerned to promote values based on respect for knowledge and truth, and on the principles of fairness and equality.

A recent BBC investigation concluded that cheating among teachers in England was commonplace. Examples included filling in gaps in students' coursework without their knowledge, pointing over students' shoulders when they made mistakes in exams, and turning a blind eye to obvious cases of parental or tutor input.

Unsurprisingly, the response of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority south of the border was to say that such cases were exceptional. By contrast, the Teacher Support Network suggested that teachers felt under constant pressure to improve results and were tempted to cheat sometimes with the collusion of headteachers because of the importance attached to league tables.

As far as I am aware, no comparable study has been carried out in Scotland. However, I know from conversations with teachers that some share similar concerns, especially in relation to coursework. The problem is not confined to schools. Most universities now have dedicated staff whose task is to investigate cases of suspected plagiarism, made so much easier and harder to trace by the availability of material on the internet.

Student attitudes to this form of cheating can be disturbing. I had a discussion with one young man who did not see anything wrong in "borrowing" text from sites. His attitude might be described as exhibiting a particular form of consumerism. He was paying an internet service provider to allow him access to information why should he not be able to use it in the way he wished? He was unconvinced by my argument that this was not a legitimate or worthwhile form of learning.

The invocation of "excellence", in its more inflated forms, is not just tasteless and boastful. It can encourage teachers and pupils to take short cuts to achieve desired outcomes. The self-interest of senior professionals in all of this should not be ignored. The credibility of inspectors, directors of education and headteachers partly depends on being able to point to "evidence" of improvement.

It is time to take a critical look at the language of excellence which has come to dominate policy discourse in Scottish education. Its use owes much to the techniques routinely employed in advertising and public relations, occupations which are not known to be over-concerned with knowledge and truth.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University

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