We are just about to pilot a new rewards and sanctions policy. One of the reasons for doing so was that the old system did not sufficiently recognise actions of good character: acts of kindness, sportsmanship, going the extra mile, persistence etc. Rather rewards were focused more on excellent performance – commendations for top work, grades, sports and performing arts colours, for example.
At staff INSET, Mr Bartlett stressed how the group of teachers who had designed the new credit system wanted to encourage teachers to identify which of the School’s values a particular action or attitude had been demonstrated: Service, Relationships, Leadership, Excellence.
Given the context of a reward– judging whether one action or attitude is more worthy of a reward than another, it caused me to reflect again on whether we should call ‘Excellence’ a value at all.
It could be argued that ‘Excellence’ is in and of itself not a value in the way that the first three are – statements of guiding, ethical principles. Rather it is a word which many use to demonstrate a level at which we value something: an excellent piece of work, or music, or production or picture. When a school says it is pursuing excellence, as so many do, it is often about gaining great academic results, or sporting success or musical renown – in short it is a measure of achievement.
Last autumn term I attended a leadership conference at Windlesham House School. Each year, a group of like-minded leaders and educators gather together to support each other and share ideas about how we can promote values education, aspiring to change the national rhetoric from the reductionist, narrow focus of examination that seems to dominate. One of the speakers challenged us not to use words such as achievement or excellence in our values or mission statements, precisely because they were more associated with a measure of performance than a description of purpose of principle.
However, I would like to suggest that if excellence is not just a measure but an attitude, a desire to fulfil a purpose as best as we can, then it does act as a value; as Aristotle claimed, ‘…We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.’ It is about striving to be the best we can be, making what we do as good as possible. So whilst we can say that something possesses the qualities we regard as excellent, excellence is not a finished state since there is always an expectation that we can strive for more.
One Sunday night in the middle of my first year of teaching, I had just finished checking my pigeon hole after an event at school. My then Headmaster and his wife walked in to the Common room and he asked me what I thought of the event – ‘what would you rate it out of 10, Martin?
I paused and gave my honest answer, ‘About 7’ and then I told him why. I was a little bemused when he then asked if 7/10 was not good enough. It took me year or two to realise that David had a habit of coaching through asking questions and did not necessarily mean that we should not settle for less than the best. He was simply sharing his thinking with me, teaching me to evaluate what we do. As I got to know him better, I recognised in him a restlessness that always wanted to move things forward.
It was typical of David that five years later he said to me something I have never forgotten. ‘You have just finished your sixth year of teaching. I think it takes six years to really know what you are doing in a classroom. I think there are two types of teacher – those who repeat their sixth year for the rest of their life and those who keep getting better because they want to. Which will you be?’
Later, as a deputy head, I was sat interviewing for a new member of staff with another Head and another David. One of his questions was always ‘Where have you encountered excellence? How do your recognise it and how do you encourage it? With a musician’s eye for the importance of both high performance and practice, David also wanted teachers who would not settle for second best.
For me, excellence is both a measure to be applauded and an attitude or value to encourage, both acting in consort with each other. If we cannot look at something and praise it for its excellence, we quickly fall into a dangerous perfectionism which is never satisfied and we never enjoy the moment. Yet if we do not strive to make things better, we soon make mediocrity our habit and that to me seems an ungracious approach to living.
At Cranleigh, our Christian heritage, the stimulus for our values, offers a further perspective. On the one hand excellence could be expressed as holiness, the character of God, articulated as one example through the Ten Commandments. It is a moral standard to aspire to. On the other, the Christian message is one of grace. Essentially, no-one is good enough nor can be good enough, but through Christ, we are accepted anyway. The pursuit of excellence becomes an attitude of gratitude motivated by love.