In defence of no-excuses behaviour approaches

Before I start, I would first like to point out that this blog would not have existed with this line of argument before I became a teacher. As a budding Education academic, I had a mix of progressive and traditional streaks, but would have certainly regarded what I am about to argue as outrageous.

One of the hallmarks of the new academic year is the inevitable outcry as schools with new or pre-existing strict uniform policies send home children or place them in isolation for various infractions of their policy. Typically, these involve misdemeanours such as unacceptable haircuts, unacceptable shoes or unacceptable trouser fabric. Other scandals include chewing gum or in some very strict schools, talking in corridors. The outrage from those critical of no-excuses approaches (and tabloids who simultaneously love to complain about young people being out of control) tends to either argue that these are absurd expectations, sometimes justified by comparisons with the workplace where such rules would be unlikely in some cases and unheard of in others. The notion that an office would ban talking in the corridors is ridiculous.

To explain my response to these critics I would like to briefly refer to The Etymologicon – a book I read over the summer holidays which explains the origins of many English words or phrases. In particular, the phrase ‘aim high’. This is widely used as a general motivator for people to try to achieve well in their lives, but originally had a more specific meaning in the context of archery. Archers always aim to hit the bullseye of course, but the further away you get from it, the higher you have to aim. The force of gravity pulls down on the arrow, so to hit a bullseye, you have to aim high. It wasn’t originally about aiming to reach the top of a vertical hierarchy, it was about hitting the dead-centre by aiming above it.

This somewhat counter-intuitive argument is precisely why no-excuses behaviour approaches are important. These systems are often used in schools with many students who are not used to behaviour expectations and professional conduct. Setting absurdly high expectations (i.e. aiming high) means that even though children may well rebel, the rebellion will not prevent them from hitting the mark (i.e. achieving well). But to prevent the downward pull from dragging them down too far, you have to aim significantly above what you are really aiming to achieve. Furthermore, by demanding perfect uniform and rigid conduct, the school is simply doing a course-correction for the fact that students have previously been going too far in the opposite direction. If students are told they must walk in silence to their next lesson, and consider doing so a rebellion, they won’t even think about some of the more drastic possible rebellions.

That said, no-excuses approaches cannot be successful simply by imposing a long-list of strict rules. I previously worked in a school (part of a large MAT) which thought that it was pursuing a no-excuses approach. It confuses no-excuses behaviour with having strict rules and then shouting at kids who did anything different. Sometimes, the rules did genuinely make no sense, but were still imposed with a fierce draconian force. The problem with this system is that it means that anyone who couldn’t shout would struggle to control a class. There was also a serious rejection of the system by the students as they felt like the school was a prison. It is at this point that critics of no-excuses will say that I am describing precisely the criticism that they are making. How can the approach be different? Surely this is precisely what no-excuses entails?

No. As I have learnt from visiting Michaela Community School (MCS) and reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, no-excuses done properly requires a serious attempt to justify and rationalise the rules you are enforcing to the students. If students think the rules are just there to give adults a power trip, then they have no investment in the system. If students are told why it is they have to walk in silence between lessons – because it means no learning time is lost – or why they have to wear the uniform perfectly – because first impressions matter when it comes to job interviews and the workplace – then they will buy into the system because they understand why it is there. What MCS has done is systematically build this justification into its entire operation. Every correct and incorrect thing done by students is noted and teachers’ response (as they say) is narrated. Simply stating this occasionally is not enough. Systematically and repeatedly narrating the rationale behind every rule that is in place creates a far warmer environment where the students are happier to follow the rules. My visit to MCS showed little sign that the students felt oppressed or oppositional to the school.

This, I think, is the major misconception about no-excuses – that it is merely yelling at kids about trivial matters. In truth it is providing high support for what will eventually not be necessary. Think of it as like a bicycle (not a learning bicycle!). Before riding a bicycle as adults do, children use support wheels. Critics of no-excuses would be arguing that since adults don’t use support wheels, children shouldn’t need to either. But without that support, those learning to ride a bicycle will simply swerve and fall over. The support can only gradually be removed in a way that ensures the rider can do it by themselves. The support wheels are not there to prevent the kid from riding the bicycle themselves. They are there to help the kid realise they can do it and eventually have the competence to do it without the support. But it has to be there at first.

I would add as a final caveat that it is of course possible that schools might take no-excuses too far. The principle should always be: does what I am banning prevent learning or damage the school environment? Does what I am enforcing help learning or promote a positive learning atmosphere? This should always be the ultimate bottom line.

I doubt this blog will change many minds, but I thought it worth throwing my tuppence into what is a fraught debate. The underlying point for me is that it was not until I became a teacher that I started to realise the value and importance of such high standards. I think the same is true for many people, and it is important that we speak up and do not allow remote education academics to control the narrative.