20 Nov No Excuses and the Pinball Kids
Several recent blogs and twitter discussions have explored the idea of a ‘No Excuses’ behaviour policy. As ever, I have huge problems with discourse that forces people to adopt a position from a binary choice; for or against; with us or against us. I find myself agreeing with people on both sides of this debate. I’m not squeamish about enforcing strict rules but, at the same time, I’d challenge anyone to spend a week at my school and hold on to the view that this is a black and white issue – ‘no excuses’ or ‘excuses’.
At my school we’re continually seeking to improve our behaviour systems. I think my staff do a phenomenal job in this area, day in day out. We’re trying to make it tighter but also warmer, more consistently fair and less dominant relative to rewards for the majority of students. We do have some binary rules. Regardless of context, family background and so on, we do hold a ‘no excuses’ approach to several things. We have lunch time detentions that are given automatically: top button, chewing, being late, equipment (pen, pencil, ruler, PE kit, musical instrument etc). No nonsense, no excuses – in principle, at least. Students know this is a fair cop; they know the rules.
We do also send students straight home if they arrive to school without their ID, their blazer, the correct shoes. We keep sets of spare shoes of all sizes, spare ties and blazers etc – many students accept them; some choose not to. We filter out a lot issues first thing in the morning with calls home and so on.
If you walk around the school during lesson time, if feels purposeful; you can always hear the low murmur of students engaged in productive learning – but it’s calm; it’s disciplined; teachers have tools to keep order and run great lessons. A radio crackles from time to time; ‘patrol’ has been called to class – a student needs to be exited, usually for exceeding the warning limit for lesson disruption. They’re taken to our Exit Room for the rest of the period and face a detention after school. The behaviour team takes care of alerting parents and running the detention with the SLT. Teachers are encouraged to drop in to have a restorative conversation with any student they have exited.
(Lunchtimes and lesson change-overs are different; we don’t have silent corridors and we’re always working on ways to foster an atmosphere that is relaxed, safe and friendly whilst also purposeful and disciplined at the less structured times of the day.)
So, even though we have some No Excuses elements to our system, what are the challenges to the No Excuses principle? There are a few.
Culture Change: It’s one thing to set up a new school with a small intake setting out your stall from the start (I’ve done this); it’s quite another to change the culture of an existing school with 210 per year group. You don’t get automatic buy-in; there’s no ‘take it or leave it’. You have to win the argument as well as enforce the rules. Resistance is inevitable; but it can’t simply be dismissed or crushed; not at this scale. It takes patience and time to shift the culture so that the boundaries are hit less often; so that hearts and minds are with you, not against you, especially amongst the students most likely to offer excuses.
Enforcement fatigue: We’re running a school; not a penal institution. Whilst supportive of the system in spirit, a lot of teachers and leaders find it hard to sustain absolute boundaries with absolute relentless consistency. We’re not machines. Faced with a continuous wave of infringements along the spectrum of seriousness, every so often you soften, you buckle, you cave.. you let it go. And then you re-group. Enforcement happens in waves rather than being permanently fixed. This means that some times, there is grey. Every person in the system has their own cycle.
Human variation: Defining boundaries is difficult. Pen/no-pen is easy; late is late. But levels of expectations and tolerance for types of talking, in-class communication, perceptions of tone – e.g. rudeness – can’t be defined. People are rarely consistent within their own scale, never mind being consistent with their colleague next door. It’s a simple inevitability that boundaries will vary in how rigid they are from place to place and time to time in a school. It means there are grey areas to negotiate in reality even if, on paper, the systems and rules seem absolutely binary.
Group behaviour: Sanctions only work if they belong to one person’s actions; where they have made a bad choice for which there is a consequence. But often there are group behaviours that can be challenging. At the level of well-motivated students simply talking too much or anti-social behaviours acted out by large groups at a bus stop or in the playground – the no excuses sanctions just don’t stick neatly because the possibility of injustice is high. You have to influence a group to change its behaviour by getting amongst them and shifting attitudes; you can’t simply punish it out of them.
Emotional behaviour: Kids get upset. Some students have genuine difficulty processing disappointment or feelings of injustice; they react; they get angry. How we deal with that requires some thought; we can’t allow emotional responses to disrupt the learning of others or to make anyone feel unsafe but it’s not a simple case of having an excuse or not. Some troubled teenagers reach the point where they literally don’t care what happens next in the heat of the moment; they lose all perspective; they say terrible things. Do we punish them for that – or do we show understanding? It’s a decision we have to make every week. The truth is that adults get upset too. I know personally I’ve contributed to escalating an incident when, on another day, I’d have handled it better. No excuses for me too I guess! It’s just not as simple as saying, in some crude binary way, that it’s all Right or Wrong, Black or White, No Excuses or ‘Excuses’.
Duck’s Backs: Even when we apply the rules consistently every day, by the book, we find that it doesn’t yield improvement for some students. We’ve found that, for say 10% of our population, detentions and other sanctions – even fixed term exclusions in some cases – do not penetrate to the level of changing their default behaviours. It’s water off a duck’s back. They’ll take whatever comes. Fortunately this isn’t the case for the 90%. But for some of the 10%, they don’t even offer an excuse. They’re simply fatalistic. Yup, I’m late, I’ll take the detention, whatevs. Then what…we have to up the ante and there’s only so far you can go with that.
The Missed Lesson Paradox: Any sanction that takes students out of lessons – internal exclusions, fixed term exclusions and even the one-lesson Exit – makes it that bit harder for them to keep up with the learning. This adds to all the negative associations they might have about learning or school life in general. So, in enforcing the rules you have to have a way of minimising the disengagement that often follows. That is much easier said than done; it’s a grey area that needs navigating case by case.
The PinBall Kids: Within the 10% there is a small % – maybe up to 30 students out of 1000 – who simply hit the boundaries all week long. They get knocked from sanction to sanction, from meeting to meeting, from intervention to intervention, without their behaviours changing. They’re trying, we’re all trying but there are only so many detentions you can sit. We’re way beyond excuses here…these are not bad people; they just find life difficult and need a lot of support to manage time, relationships, learning, concentration. The weekly Support Planning Meeting between our SEN team, Behaviour team and Heads of School is one part of a matrix of provision planning that looks to support these students. ‘No excuses’ is way off the map in terms of being relevant here. Nobody is making excuses; they’re too busy trying to find solutions.
Parents: Sometimes, the issues don’t sit with the students. They sit firmly with parents. There are plenty of students who need the school to take in loco parentis very seriously in assuming parental duties at a high level in relation to learning. But I’m talking about the few parents who actively engage in order to undermine school systems. I know my child, they’d never do that, say that….they’re not doing that detention…it’s the teacher’s fault etc. To what extent can a school sanction a child for defiance driven by parental attitudes. It’s all about context, case by case. Once again, no excuses isn’t the agenda. It’s just a bit more complicated.
The End of the Road: No excuses suggests that, ultimately, you reach the end of the road. I’m not squeamish about doing this, following through on a ‘take it or leave it’ final warning or on a serious one-off incident: permanent exclusion is necessary; there has to be an End of the Road that is real. I’m sure some would argue that we should reach this point more quickly with more students; to cleanse the school of disruptive elements. It’s a tempting thought. But of course it’s a thousand times easier to project this and back it up if you don’t have to take any responsibility for what happens next. In my context, I have to persuade a panel of governors to uphold my recommendations but, more than that, I have to look the Principal of the PRU in the eye and tell them that we did all we could; that has to be true. You can’t permanently exclude a child because of their parents; or because they’re a PinBall Kid struggling with life. You can’t just dump and run, expecting someone else to pick up the pieces. Not if you have integrity and any sense of playing a role in a wider system serving a community. Is that an excuse?
The No Excuses mantra is a ruse; a powerful rhetorical device – but it has a limit in reality. At least it does in our reality.