NO EXCUSES

Maybe I’m jumping on the bandwagon a bit here, but I read the recent blog posts about the ‘no excuses culture’ concept (here and here) with great interest as I myself work in a no excuses school and realised, perhaps for the first time, that it is an idea that is open to interpretation. I found myself fluctuating between agreement and opposition almost sentence by sentence in some sections, and again in the comments sections of both posts, and I would like to contribute my own thoughts on the matter. I work in a no excuses school but this post represents my personal interpretation of that concept; all views are entirely my own (with significant reference/response to the aforementioned posts and heavily drawing on personal experience from my own context).

First and foremost, I absolutely believe that the no excuses concept is right for the students, the school community, and for the future of society – we are educating our students academically and also preparing them for adult life; an important aspect of that is teaching them to take responsibility for their actions. This aspect of their learning, like all other aspects of their learning, has to be done within the parameters of their being children and in the process of gaining life experience, developing the cognitive capacity to function in adult society and, of course, within the parameters of us all being only human. This doesn’t mean that ‘no excuses’ should be implemented on a scale of reasonableness where some excuses are more excusable than others. In fact, the very opposite – it means that there has to be absolute clarity of what the phrase means and how it applies to individual experiences… and all within the context of a school being a safe and supportive environment for the young people it is nurturing to adulthood.

There is, I believe, a significant difference between an ‘excuse’ and a ‘reason’.

excuse /ik’sju:z/
Seek to lessen the blame attaching to a fault or offence.

reason /’ri:z(e)n/
A cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/browse/english/

Yes, we want our students to take responsibility for their actions – intentional or accidental – and to realise how their choices impact others as well as their own future. We don’t, however, want them to feel guilty about things that were out of their control, and we don’t want them to become so fearful of taking responsibility for their actions that they become dishonest and deceptive in order to avoid the consequences. The culture of a school, therefore, is instrumental in the successful implementation of the ‘no excuses’ approach. In a school community built on the common values of trust and fairness, where adults are reliable and supportive and the behaviour management system is based on correction as opposed to punishment, and where relationships are strong (another argument for smaller schools), a consistent approach can be achieved by taking each situation on an individual basis –  one-size-fits-one systems – and students can feel safe to take responsibility for their mistakes as they learn how to function appropriately in society. Having no pen because you didn’t bother to check your bag that morning (and even though you had ample time to go to the resource shop and whatever other safety nets are in place) is a learning experience and students will need to be supported to understand the impact of that choice they made and be intrinsically motivated – not guilted or frightened – to make better choices in the future. No excuses, but a learning process. Oh, and they will need a pen. A house fire, I would say, is a reason and not an excuse for not having proper equipment and/or uniform. Conversely, though, I would say that the ‘no excuses’ concept can still be applied. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything wrong to be knocked down by the things that life throws at you… we want our students to be resilient enough to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep going. No excuses, but having learnt that we should all support one another in times of need.

For me, as a teacher and INCo, there is another layer of meaning I take from the ‘no excuses’ mantra; there are no excuses for low expectation. The genuine reasons there might be for a school to operate in a certain way, implement specific support, access outside agencies, or take innovative approaches to reaching out to their community both within and beyond the school gate, too often become excuses for having low expectations of students or certain groups/individuals within the school. There are lots of reasons to be creative, unique and aspirational (perhaps where others wouldn’t be)… there are no excuses for expecting someone to be any less than the best that they can be. We are a no excuses school because we don’t let any of the reasons we do things become excuses for low expectations.

So, as I see it, the no excuses concept is straightforward; we take responsibility for our actions, whether intentional or accidental, and we learn from those experiences. We do what we say we are going to do and we do it because it is the right thing to do. We aim to give 100% every day and we never give up.

We do our best.

No excuses.

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11 thoughts on “NO EXCUSES

  1. Hi there, thanks for reading my blog and I agree with a lot of what you say above. I think a lot of schools take this kind of approach without using the ‘no excuses’ tag. (Often, schools will talk about ‘choices’ instead, to explain the concept of responsibility.) I think what you’re essentially saying (I may be wrong, please correct me if I am) is that you don’t mean NO excuses, you mean no EXCUSES.

    The thing is, though, I don’t think there is a clear blue water between an ‘excuse’ and a ‘reason’, because one person’s reason is still another person’s excuse. Maybe I can use an example to explain …?

    After the fire, if school had said to us ‘go to the shop and get more uniform so your children can comply with the rules’, I could have said to them ‘I’m really sorry but we just had £30,000 of damage done to our house, our credit card is maxed out from staying in a hotel, and we can’t afford it.’ Now, is that an ‘excuse’, or is that a ‘reason’? Or, if we had kept our children off school for a whole week or more after the fire (they were pretty traumatised), would that be ‘reasonable’, or would it be an ‘excuse’? Can you see how this quickly becomes a sliding scale of ‘reasonableness’?

    Perhaps a clearer motto for schools would be ‘You might have a reason, but hey, let’s find a solution rather than looking for an excuse’. (Obviously that’s a bit wordy, but I’m sure you get what I mean.)

    In our case, the school didn’t put us in a position where we had to make any excuses about money, because they simply threw a big bag of uniform at us and all the parents asked us if there was anything at all that they could do. Sometimes in life, the last thing you are capable of doing is taking on responsibility for the bad stuff that gets thrown at you.

    I hope that all makes sense.

    • Yes, perfect sense. I think no excuses (maybe no EXCUSES) can only work in a mutually supportive community built on strong relationships, and valuing the individual. In fact, I think that’s those things are the foundation for having high expectations of learning, of behaviour, of parent involvement… Lots of things that would be horribly unfair if applied in a one size fits all, unsupportive or distant way. You can have a no excuses culture if you’re fair, empathetic, flexible and supportive. In short, if you’re kind. For me, no excuses is about getting students to take responsibility for their actions (intentional or accidental) and having resilience, perseverance and tenacity, even when those things are hard. But I also think that this has to be in combination with learning that we are all connected to and responsible for one another. That its okay to accept help. That sometimes things go wrong and you can’t change the past, but you can go forward in a positive way and learn from those experiences. For me, no excuses is about teaching students – through our systems, our responses to their actions, and through our own behaviour – to work toward being that socially responsible adult; not necessarily achieving it independently straight away. I’d like to hope that no school would penalise a family going through a crisis like you have mentioned, just as the school involved didn’t, and that our natural instincts lead us to be empathetic and understanding. Each incident or occurrence must be taken on an individual basis, where we support one another to accept responsibility where there is responsibility to be taken, come to terms with the things we have no control over, accept the help that is available, and then – when ready – crack on. Like lots of things, it isn’t as simple as the two word soundbite might suggest; life’s complicated! As a principle though, I’m sticking with it – there’s only one rule; be kind. No excuses.

      • You write very coherently and with empathy about this. I like that. 🙂 I read something on ‘no excuses’ that came out of the US (I’ve looked for the link but annoyingly can’t find it) that made me worry a lot about how it might be applied in extremis.

        The article gave an account of a head teacher saying into a child’s face that there were no excuses for his background, that the fact his parents were drug addicts (or something similar) was no reason why he couldn’t do x, y or z. It was literally ‘I don’t care what your problems are, I won’t adapt what I do for anyone’. And that ‘take’ on a ‘no excuses’ culture made me very sad. (Obviously I’m not saying that this is what would happen here, or at your school.)

        It is interesting how my blog has made everyone define their terms, so I guess something good did come out of it after all. Sometimes soundbites have a habit of dividing us rather than helping us find common ground. Have a lovely Friday. 🙂

      • I think it is important to thrash these things out though. My school has a reputation for being strict and unrelenting in our high expectations of everyone in the building, staff and students alike. What is much harder to get across without physically being in the building and seeing for yourself, is that these expectations can only be applied if the school culture is right. This is the crucial difference between a one-size-fits-all system and a one-size-fits-one system. It’s all about relationships. You’re right; it is a scary thought that some children may be learning to expect the people around them to be unsympathetic, unsupportive and unkind and all under the banner of ‘no excuses’. It worries me that people might see that phrase emblazoned across our walls and think that we are treating our students unfairly! We can only strive to get things right in our own settings for our own children, and continue to have these conversations and listen to one another’s perspectives in order to, hopefully, begin to establish best practice as widely as possible. Thanks for your comments. Have a great day!

  2. But you see that’s where I would interpret what the head said differently. Circumstances can be changed and if you tell or lead a child to believe that poverty, the problems their parents have or their circumstances is a reason or an excuse to behave badly or fail then the child is going to internalise that.

    I agree with the Head – there is no reason why the child of two drug addicts is incapable of achieving in life -the child is a separate entity and nothing is inevitable. It is one of those things that can be taken completely out of context and interpreted incorrectly because none of us were there to see the reaction of the child.

    I think the key word that you have used several times is empathy – whereas the current state in many UK schools is due to lack of empathy and an over-abundance of pity. This results in adults systematically and repeatedly allowing children to excuse their poor behaviour and avoid taking responsibility for it, instead pushing teachers and as a result the rest of the class, to accept unacceptable behaviour routinely.

    We know that the vast majority of children are happier when the rules are applied fairly. The children whose behaviour is excused do not, in my experience, improve their behaviour but rather escalate it as the problem is not school. The idea that this state of affairs should be allowed to continue and anything else is inhumane is spread around like propaganda. The cane was inhumane, being corrected or reprimanded if necessary is not. The kind of adults who look back and resent this are usually still struggling to accept responsibility for their own behaviour. Should they really be allowed to influence school behaviour policies? I don’t mean Sue – I mean people I have worked with.

    I really think part of the issue is there is no real attempt to actually discuss the experience of school with those who have gone through it and come out the other end as responsible adults. How did they, despite their background, manage it? What helped? What didn’t? Too often we concentrate on those that have not succeeded to do this, extrapolate their experience to every child who has grown up in challenging circumstances, then construct theories and policies on what are an inadequate set of assumptions.

    If I had my time as a child again, I would still want the strict but empathetic approach of my teachers, to the pity of some of my colleagues who, while well meaning, don’t understand that school was a safe place precisely because the rules were not being bent over and over again, the classes were not out of control, the adults did have authority which they used to keep us safe. I have been acutely aware of this whenever I have had challenging classes where the behaviour of one or two pupils has been allowed to escalate because of excuses made for them. I think on occasion it is an attempt to build a relationship with the child. Except that it doesn’t seem to have that effect – instead the child does not build a secure relationship with the teacher while they see that they can manipulate a senior member of staff, with whom they have an unhealthy relationship.

    One of the movements I greatly admire is Roots of Empathy – http://www.rootsofempathy.org/ They acknowledge the effect on all the children of poor behaviour and involve them as a group to developing empathetic skills with the help of a local parent and their baby. It is at least an attempt to both have no excuses for poor behaviour while teaching and highlighting the importance of empathy to young children.

    • Hi, thanks for your comments. I think you’ve maybe misinterpreted my post and that we may actually agree on these points! I’m completely in favour of schools having ‘no excuses’ cultures and I believe that we have to work hard not to allow our reasons for existing become excuses for low expectation. We are here to educate the children in whatever they need – academic, socially and emotionally – and some kids will need more than others. The children with the greatest number of potential disadvantaging factors in their background are the ones that need the no excuses approach the most… and they’re the ones that will need the most empathy and nurturing in order to get to where they’re going. No excuses only works in an environment based on trust, fairness and kindness. So yes, there is no excuse for the child of two drug addicts not to do every bit as well as their peers, but there are reasons to approach that student differently in order to achieve it.
      I think your comment about the difference between empathy and pity is really important. I guess we are taking empathy to mean being understanding and considerate but maintaining high expectations, and pity to mean feeling sorry for someone and letting them get away with meeting only low expectations? This is an issue I come across time and time again in my role as INCo (SENCo)!!! That teachers and support staff alike will accept substandard work or behaviour from a student with additional needs because they feel sorry for them or feel that this is the kindest thing to do. A child with any kind of disadvantage or barrier to their learning is going to need those around them to have higher expectations, not lower! Killing a child’s opportunities with pity and good intentions is still killing their opportunities!
      I also agree completely with your comments about rules making children happy. As long as those rules have been designed to support them to be the best that they can be, taking everyone in the community into account and are built on a basis of fairness… then of course, children are going to feel safer when they know where they stand, responses are consistent and reliable and the adults around them demonstrate that they care whether they’re doing well or not.
      No excuses means exactly that; no excuses. But, equally, it doesn’t mean expecting children to overcome their disadvantages and barriers on their own, as if they were further along their learning and development journey and had no community around them. We want our children, including the most vulnerable, to be the best that they can be, resilient and tenacious… but we also want them to feel connected to and supported by the people around them and then, hopefully, they’ll go on not only to be successful in their own right but kind, empathetic and supportive of others too.

      • I think you are right – I was responding to Sue’s comments as much as your original post. I was mulling over the problem in my head this morning and I feel that it is our definitions of strict/firm that have changed over time. I would have said that strict was unemotional, uncaring and no empathy for the child. However firm is just maintaining the boundaries because at all levels – whether with children or adults this is the emotionally healthy way to live ones life.

        However since the cane was removed, that type of teacher no longer exists in the system. Therefore the teachers that are firm (not strict – I think its a misuse) are considered and called strict because de facto they have become the extreme in teaching.

        Therefore the middle ground has gone to people who don’t maintain boundaries but are doing it out of kindness rather than neglect.

        Someone spoke of cognitive disonance (where we maintain conflicting beliefs) – this is a prime example – people know that boundaries make children feel safe but at the same time feel that enforcing them is inhumane. This is the root cause of a lot of problems in schools from our side (the parents are a different matter).

        What you describe sounds much more like how I was in class. I empathised and explained but I did not let anyone make excuses. The view from the outside was that I was strict on the children but actually they behaved because they knew that the rules applied to everyone equally and therefore even when they had their blips they accepted the consequences and we moved on. Each day was a fresh start and it goes to show that when I left my last class the child who struggled the most without me was the one who I did maintain the rules with but had a good relationship all the same. It does take time with some children but sometimes others bending the rules too quickly creates a barrier between the child and the teacher. This needs to be both acknowledged and actively avoided!!

      • I think you’d fit right in at my school! Firm but fair, tough love when needed, strong relationships and so on and so forth. It’s been really useful to have the conversations around it actually, because it highlights things that were going unnoticed. The language we use, for example, makes a big difference to people’s understanding of what we are doing – excuses versus reasons, strict versus firm – the aim is to achieve clarity and consistency, so it’s important to be precise. Cognitively dissonant concepts are par for the course for a SENCO I think! Striking the balance between inclusivity and personalisation is a tightrope and it’s in a different place for every child – every single child, not just those with additional educational needs. Being a no excuses environment means finding the balance between independence, individuality, community,equality and nurture for each child’s each day and every time they change. I think you can be both nurturing and no nonsense! You can be inclusive and individual focussed! Thank you for your comments, they’ve been really helpful for me getting my views on this really clear in my mind. X

      • Thank you – it feels like you are trying to find solutions that will work while dealing with the reality!! I look forward to reading more blog posts!!

  3. I believe that as long as the children have appropriate support from both inside and outside the school, including from any relevant external agencies or networks, that the “no excuses” system is perfectly functional. For a teacher to simply say that the child’s circumstances, in particular, the more substantial examples explored, are no excuse to underachieve, is short sighted, but to believe so alongside giving them access to support in an understanding environment sets them up to excel and develop into adults that are able to accept and take control of their problems without using them as a barrier. As I think you’ve said in a comment, hopefully this will encourage them in turn to become sympathetic, constructive adults. I also believe that if the right environment is created, it is possible to apply one rule for all students to follow, but to also approach individual circumstances holistically within that expectation.
    Your school sounds like a very fair and supportive community and a perfect place to implement such a system.
    Great post!

    • Thanks for your comments! I agree – no excuses is right, but is only fair in a supportive community. And yes, a no excuses approach can look like one-size-fits-all… And I suppose it is! But, again, it’s right but can only be fair of the conditions are right. That means having systems that are designed to meet the needs of every child – a school designed around the most vulnerable child benefits every child. Just because a child can cope doesn’t mean they should be left to cope. Why cope when you can thrive?!? Our most vulnerable children often have their needs considered on an individual basis which, sadly, can result in them being segregated within their community. But what of the systems were designed around them? Every child, no matter how resilient, having their needs considered on an individual basis? Then, I believe, you can have a no excuses culture – one-size-fits-ONE systems… For every one. X

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