04 SES 09 D, Inclusion: Deconstructing Rhetoric To Promote Organisational Change
A recent plea from Luc Boltanski (2013) has drawn attention to the way the category of “excellence” is currently spreading throughout society, as an apparatus that deeply affects social power dynamics. The paper will critically examine the role that the rhetoric of excellence is increasingly playing also in education as a powerful instrument to foster neoliberal school reform based oncompetition and standardizedtesting. Traditionally, the primary focus of research on education has been concentrated on social disadvantage, rather than the on the educational paths of upper classes (Gillies, 2007). With a few exceptions, the structure and dynamics of elite power consequently remain largely invisible within the field of studies on education (Savage, Williams, 2008). However, we must acknowledge that the term “elite” is still a controversial one for educational researchers, as it can refer on a case-by-case basis to different dimensions as economic wealth, political power, social exclusivity, or even cultural lifestyle. As for educational organisation, we need to clarify whether, for example, “elite” is an institutional status or just an attribution of the families who attend the school (Ball, 2003).
Khan (2012) proposes to define elites by the kinds of resources they have access to or control. In this regard, we can identify elites that exercise control over the economy, political decisions, access to information and social knowledge, as well as social tastes, dispositions, and cultural development.Accordingly, elite schools are those that have “vastly disproportionate control over or access to a wide range of relevant resources”, which include significant economic capacity, academic capital, social ties to elite families and other institutions of power, and the capacity to guide and transfer culture (Khan, 2015).More precisely, the primary role of elite schools is to “inculcate and certify economically valued cultural capital” (Kingston, Stanley Lewis, 1990), so ensuring the reproduction of capital through the acquisition of a specific students’ habitusthat Forbes and Lingard (2013) call assuredness, i.e. the ability to assume that high status privileges are not in question.
Elite schools contribute to the perpetuation of cultural hegemony by maintaining existing advantages and creating new ones through a system of exclusion and distinction (Bourdieu, 1998). In this respect, in many European countries the mantra of “excellence” has increasingly become an effective instrument to foster consensus about the adoption of (new) public management policy in school, whichtries to align educational organisations with the market, managerialism and performativity values of the private sector. This rhetoric devolves responsibility for educational disaffection from failing governmental policies to single schools, parents and students. As an umbrella term, lacking precise content but working as a linguistic interchange mechanism (Moore et al., 2017), “excellence” is a highly adaptable tool aimed at cultivating a narrative where school, far from being an inclusive environment, is reduced to a ranking exercise, and a large share of lower attainers is requisite to support the actual lack of social mobility.As an ideological framework justifying privatization and commodification of public school, the “excellence” rhetoric substitutes solidarities based upon community and inclusion for an individual model of performativity (Gerrard, 2014; Tomlinson, 2017).
Through qualitative research, the paper investigates how, becoming part of the public sphere of education, the “excellence bandwagon” has contributed to reshaping the dynamics of power in European education, both at the organisational (school) and professional (teacher/head-teacher) level.
The investigation was developed by means of critical discourse analysis and semi-structured interviews. Critical discourse analysis (CDA) helps describe, interpret, and explain power relationships between language and social configurations (Rogers, 2011). Differently from other discourse analysis methods, CDA offers not only a description and interpretation, but also includes an explanation of why and how hidden power relations are embedded in the construction and representation of the educational field through discourse. We applied CDA to a corpus related to the topic of excellence in school, which comprised documents produced by the European Union Education and Training Commission, as well as by national educational agencies in four countries (Denmark, Italy, Germany, and the UK). We also investigated articles published by major newspapers in the four countries between 2009 and 2018. Collected texts were subsequently analysed through an examination of the following aspects (Fairclough, 2001): - Whole text organisation (narrative and argumentative structure); - Clause combination; - Grammatical and semantic features (transitivity, action, voice, mood, modality); and - Words (e.g. vocabulary, collocations, use of metaphors). Categories emerging from the CDA analysis were then used to prepare and carry out e-mail interviews on the research subject with teachers and head-teachers selected through an opportunistic snowball sampling method (Brinkman, 2013). Interviews held with twenty-four teachers and five head-teachers from fourteen primary and secondary schools in Denmark, Italy, Germany, and the UK were transcribed verbatim and then coded through Atlas.ti© in order to compare data and identify emerging themes. Research findings were finally validated through the triangulation of information sources and member checking with the participants in the study.
Evidence provided by CDA and semi-structured interviews help highlight how in European Union, as well as in the four countries investigated, the pervasive rhetoric of excellence has been used as an ideological tool to subvert the power balance in the educational field by subtly dismantling common trust in the welfare tradition of supporting public schooling. More than a simple keyword, the reference to excellence is commonly employed as a rhetorical device that, through sustained reiteration, creates implicit “meaning packages” that suggest distinction, instead of inclusion, as a core value for school education. Six categories especially emerge from the analysis: • Excellence as an individual status and property; • Excellence as belonging to a “happy few” club; • Promotion of merit as aimed to select students; • Recognition as strictly linked to performance; • Downgrading of physical or artistic abilities; • Marginalisation of social and cooperative competences. As CDA shows, by insinuating excellence as a buzzword for education, performativity has been imposed as a standard model of achieving educational values by measuring school “outputs” that would classify best and worst school environments. This leads to the current spread of ranking systems aimed at reassuring families and teachers about “what really counts in education” in an increasingly complex world based on global market and wild competition. However, according to the interviewees, the framework of excellence is largely responsible, on the contrary, for the sense of increasing anxiety and loss of power and identity that permeates the social life of Italian school nowadays.
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