Manufactured Excellence Everywhere: but what about the human cost?

Educational excellence has been in the news a lot of late – from the row over seven year old testing through to the latest government U-turn on school academisation. In today’s guest blog, author of recently published Pushed to the edge: Inclusion and behaviour support in schools, Val Gillies provides her insights into a system that falls far short of providing quality education to a large number of children in its care…

Val Gillies (2)Recent developments at the Department for Education have managed to out-parody even the sharpest of political satires. Attempts to subject primary age children to more demanding standards have descended into confusion and controversy, with experts highlighting the ambiguities and misleading nature of the questions.

The perversely difficult spelling, grammar and punctuation tests stumped even the Schools Minister himself and have sparked mass protests from teachers, parents and kids. Then in the midst of the furore it was discovered some of the tests had previously been published online, not just once but twice. Meanwhile screeching U turns have had to be made on the issues of baseline testing for reception children and the forced academisation.


The recently published Government white paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ has acquired a comic irony in the context of this omnishambles. But it’s important to recognise that ‘excellence’ is exactly what the DfE is inflicting upon us. While disguised as a simple and obvious championing of quality, excellence is an empty signifier unless tied to some form of valuation. If educational excellence really were everywhere it would cancel itself out.

Instead Governments promote excellence as part of an ideological commitment to economic rationality. Assessment, accountability and competition are lauded and take on the role of arbiters of value. This produces a distorted conviction that excellence only exists if it can be measured. Moreover, the act of measuring is then co-opted as the primary method of creating ‘excellence’.

“Brutal adherence to the standards agenda results in the exclusion of shocking numbers of children…”

And so a regime of ‘excellence’ is pursued through a ruthless and relentless determination to quantify, measure, monitor, regulate and thereby manufacture quality. As Danny Dorling incisively notes this approach to education has turned England into the extremist of Europe. Brutal adherence to the standards agenda results in the exclusion of shocking numbers of children deemed incompatible with the narrow emphasis on performance indicators.

And this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Behind the exclusion statistics are whole cohorts of children and young people consigned to internal ‘inclusion units’. These are usually self-contained centres located on school premises and administered by ‘inclusion managers’.

Crucially they enable the removal of demanding pupils from mainstream classrooms for extended periods without recourse to official exclusion channels.

Invisible practice

This is a completely invisible practice. We don’t know how many schools run units on their premises (the NUT suggest it’s likely to be a majority). And there is no official monitoring of who is referred to them, for what purpose and for how long.

Having conducted intensive ethnographic research in three secondary school ‘inclusion units’ I’ve witnessed the devastating impact of manufactured excellence on children and young people who cannot be reduced to measurements of human capital.

“Long term medication with Ritalin had stunted his growth but done little to calm [Peter’s] behaviour”

For example, 12 year old Peter, diagnosed with ADHD, transferred straight into an inclusion unit from his primary school. Long term medication with Ritalin had stunted his growth but done little to calm his behaviour. He was cheeky, frenetic and very likable. He had a remarkable talent for maths, but the quality of teaching in the Unit was woeful. A supply teacher would arrive and distribute worksheets once a week, leaving Peter bored and frustrated.

Peter remained in the unit for another two years until he was officially excluded for fighting. His segregation was ostensibly to work on his social and emotional skills. Behind this rhetoric of inclusion stands a more strategic function of maximising the time and attention spent on those more likely to generate measurable results for the school. Peter was regarded as a low value investment within the school.

It’s a similar story with Manny, also 12. He and his family came to the UK as West African refugees, fleeing a civil war. By the time he was enrolled in a full time school place Manny was almost ten. He was not able to read or write and he struggled to make sense of classroom expectations. On entering secondary school he was rapidly referred to the inclusion unit. He received plenty of anger management training, but poor quality learning support. By 13 he had been permanently excluded and by 15 he was in a secure unit having been convicted for street robbery.

Academic achievements

During his incarceration Manny’s enthusiastically embraced an opportunity to study. His academic achievements were impressive, highlighting just how badly he was let down at school.

As these examples (and other research) demonstrate basic entitlements to occupy educational space are being eroded. A child’s place in the classroom is increasingly contingent on their ability to perform appropriately in tests.

What kind of an education system so ruthlessly incentivises marginalisation and exclusion? The answer is one that prioritises manufactured ‘excellence’ above principles of equity and justice.

The DfE ‘Excellence Everywhere’ juggernaut thunders on spitting out kids like Peter and Manny in its wake. But recent events have shown it’s not unstoppable. It’s twice been sent spinning into the buffers by opposing forces. A determined reconnection with education as an enfranchising resource could send it careering over a cliff. That really would be excellent.

Pushed to the edge [FC] 4webPushed to the edge: Inclusion and behaviour support in schools by Val Gillies is available to purchase here from the Policy Press website.

Val Gillies has researched and published in the area of family, social class and marginalised children and young people, producing a wide range journal articles and books and chapters on parenting, youth, behaviour support policies in schools, home school relations as well as qualitative research methods. Val will be taking up a position as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Westminster in October 2016.

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If you like this you might also enjoy….

Educational Excellence Everywhere! by Patrick Ainley

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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