People bandy around the term ‘no excuses discipline’ in a way that I think is often highly misleading and, ultimately, very unhelpful. ‘No excuses discipline’ is parodied as a cruel and heartless system administered by Gradgrindian monsters such as myself who clearly do not care about children at all. As I’m going show today, nothing could be further from the truth. If you truly care for your pupils ‘no excuses discipline’ is, in fact, the best option available to you.
‘No excuses discipline’ is like Ronseal: it does exactly what is says on the tin. It is a warm but unapologetically strict school-wide system, which sanctions pupils for poor behaviour. More than that, though, it says that as long as the school has set the expectations clearly, and supported the pupils to reach them, there can be ‘no excuses’. Pupils should all wear correct uniform, pupils should all turn up to school on time and pupils should all bring the correct equipment to lessons. Failure to do so will result in some form of sanction.
Now, I don’t for a second think that those who oppose ‘no excuses’ discipline dislike children or have anything but the best intentions. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some immensely diligent and caring teachers who I believe are nonetheless wrong on this particular question of school discipline.
And that is because I believe that the alternative to a ‘no excuses’ school is ‘some excuses’ school: where we accept different standards for different pupils. And I believe that that is profoundly wrong.
So let me start with a proposition that probably won’t be that controversial. The ambient level of behaviour in Britain’s schools is poor.
On one hand, you have what we might call the ‘big ticket’ behaviour. This is the really serious physical, verbal and emotional abuse which is much more common than many are prepared to admit. NASUWT who surveyed 5000 members in March found that nearly half of teachers had been subjected to some form of verbal abuse. More than 1 in 10 said a pupil had physically assaulted them. And, as ever, the thoughts and feelings of the invisible children in these classes, whose learning is consistently disrupted by such incidents, go unrecorded.
But it’s not just the ‘big ticket’ behaviour that we should be concerned about. For many teachers it’s the low-level disruption that really sticks in the craw: the shouting out, the answering back and now the constant fear that the next time you tell off little Jonny little Gemma will record you getting all hot and flustered and post it all over Facebook.
And behaviour is so bad even Ofsted can see it. In its report on low-level disruption in England it found that up to an hour of learning was being lost each day. That’s a staggering 38 days per pupil per year. It says that this is ‘deeply worrying… not because pupils’ safety is at risk where low-level disruption is prevalent, but because this has a detrimental impact on the life chances of too many pupils.’
And that’s the crux of it, right there at the end; ‘the life chances of too many pupils.’ It is why I maintain that this is a moral issue and one that should shame us much more than it does already.
This is because the effects of poor behaviour are particularly damaging on the margins of our society. In schools where the pupils are poor or are in care. These children always get the double-whammy: not only are they more likely to come from turbulent or unstable homes where consistency, routine or even high expectations may be in short supply. But they are often then served by teachers who will not preach what they would practise with their own children. Some teachers expect their own children to do their homework. They expect their own children to bring a pen to school. They expect their own children to put their hand up before speaking in class. But hold other people’s children to different standards. They believe in different standards for different pupils.
This is the specific context in which ‘no excuses’ discipline must be situated:
- A system where the ambient level of behaviour is poor.
- A system where poor behaviour disproportionately damages those pupils on the margins of our society.
I think it is a shameful state of affairs and one that I believe it is in our power to change. With that in mind, I have two propositions.
Proposition 1: No excuses discipline means all teachers can teach.
It will have escaped nobody in this room that there is a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching. There reasons for this are complex. But one thing that drives teachers away from schools, and particularly schools in the most challenging areas is the anxiety and the waste that come with poor behaviour. In my training we used to call it ‘the Dread’: that feeling when you wake on a Sunday when you know that, not only are you going to spend most of the day creating a card sort, but that the next day Year 8 will spend all day ripping it up.
Now there are those who will tell you that the reason for bad behaviour in classrooms is because of the teacher’s poor planning, their inexperience or their lack of charisma. There is some truth in this. Pupils do behave better with teachers who set work that is pitched to the right ability. Pupils do behave better with teachers that make them laugh (and who they can laugh at!) And pupils do behave better when they know that their teacher, deep down, really loves them. We all know teachers like this. They are the staffroom legends that can always be relied upon to bring even the naughtiest Year 11s to heal.
But you can’t design a system around Tom Bennett. You can’t design a system based on all of your teachers being exceptionally well-planned, exceptionally humorous or teachers who all have exceptional relationships with their classes. Not everyone can be exceptional.
No excuses discipline means that all teachers can teach, not just the exceptional because it creates a consistent culture of sky-high expectations throughout the school. All teachers and all pupils know where they stand. Every pupil knows they have to wear their uniform correctly. Every pupil knows they have to complete their homework. And every pupil knows they have to put their hand up before speaking. Of course there will always be teachers within these systems who are exceptional – teachers like Tom Bennett and John Tomsett will always stand out because of the relationships that they build with their pupils. But the success of our systems should not be judged on how they help the strongest but on how they help the weakest. No excuses discipline means that all our teachers can teach – even the nervous, the inexperienced and the least charismatic.
Proposition 2: No excuses discipline means all pupils can learn.
I want to tell you about one of our Year 7s who, for the purposes of this debate, I’ll call Tom. This is a shortened version of a conversation we had with his teacher in Year 6 before he joined us:
‘Tom is a nice boy but he has a problem with authority. He has had this problem since Reception, but it has worsened since the beginning of year 6. His problems are emotional. He has no father figure and this affects his self-esteem and how he reacts to authoritarian figures. He’s typical of boys round here. He dislikes time outs and detentions. He attends the Behavioural Unit 2 days per week. The other 3 days, he is in school until 1.30pm because he simply cannot cope with the full school day. On a regular basis, he has tantrums after lunch. He cries and throws himself into the walls. On some occasions, he throws chairs. Situations often escalate to violence and he often hits other children. In my opinion, Tom will need to be given time to adjust to secondary school and I think a full timetable from September would be very damaging.”
A ‘some excuses’ school would have taken that teacher at her word. They would have excused Tom’s behaviour on account of him having no father figure at home. They would have excused Tom’s behaviour because he was ‘typical’ [her words not mine] of boys in Wembley. And they would have excused Tom from a full school timetable and a full education because ‘he occasionally cries and throws himself into walls’.
We chose not to do that. We didn’t excuse Tom. We didn’t excuse him because he had no father figure at home. We didn’t excuse his behaviour. And we didn’t excuse him from lessons. And that’s a difficult thing for any adult to do: to use your authority over a child in a way that you know, at least temporarily, is going to upset them. For people who go in to teaching because they care about children it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s not what we thought we signed up to do.
But it is something that we must do because the alternative is so much worse. If we cannot change Tom’s behaviour we allow who he is now to define who he will be.
And Tom found it tricky at first. He spent the first three weeks in and out of detention like a yoyo. He cried a bit and, even now, he turns around from time to time. But he’s on a full timetable rather than leaving at 1.30. He is polite and well mannered to teachers and pupils. And, and most importantly, and because of this, he’s really happy. Because now he can learn.
And that’s what this really comes down to: the alternative to a ‘no excuses’ culture is a ‘some excuses’ culture – where we allow children’s circumstances to define who they are and what they can be.
Every teacher in this room will have taught a pupil like Tom. And every school and every teacher has a choice. They can make excuses for Tom and say that kids like him are incapable of a full timetable. Kids like Tom will never bring the correct equipment to schools. And kids like Tom will never be able to put their hands up without first shouting out. I’ve said today that this is the ‘some excuses’ school: a school that presumes that because he always was he always will.
‘No excuses’ discipline rejects this. It says that teachers should be able to teach: all teachers, not just those whose planning is perfect, or are charismatic or who’ve established their reputation over 30 years. And, most importantly, no excuses discipline works for pupils. It means our country’s pupils – all our pupils – can go beyond the circumstances of their birth to be whatever they want to be.