Excellence and education: rhetoric and reality

D.J.M. Gillies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


'Excellence' has been a prevalent term in New Labour rhetoric on education, most notably in the stated goal of 'excellence for all' in education. Despite that, the meaning of the term has remained imprecise, and the implications of universal excellence unclear. In this paper, three distinct definitions of excellence are identified and the practicality considered of each as a universal goal for public sector education. The paper also suggests that the emphasis on excellence can be seen, both currently and historically, as a response to 'crisis narratives' in official discourse. In further accounting for the word's current ubiquity, its links to Total Quality Management theory are outlined, exposing its essential neo-liberal roots in the world of the market, and in ill-founded attempts to evaluate schools with the tools of the private sector. Taking account of recent work on New Labour rhetoric, and discourse analysis, the paper concludes that ambiguity of meaning and strong connotative power, mark 'excellence' as a 'keyword' and 'condensation symbol' in public discourse rather than as a genuine political goal.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-36
Number of pages17
JournalEducation, Knowledge and Economy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2007


  • excellence
  • new labour
  • total quality management
  • crisis narrative
  • discourse analysis
  • keyword
  • condensation symbol


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