I vaguely followed the Michaela debates on Saturday, picking out bits from the people who were there and the conversations that took place for the rest of the weekend. A topic that seems to have caught wider attention is ‘“No Excuses” discipline’, with lots of Twitter activity and a few blogs setting out thoughts. Since then I’ve had a think about where our school sits in all this and actually I’m not sure it’s quite where I would’ve said it was on first thoughts.
My initial thoughts on ‘No Excuses’ are that it sounds great for some, but what happens to the ones that have to move on? I’m not the only one to think like this and I’ve seen references to SEND, family crises etc. What happens to the pupils and families that don’t ‘fit’? Where do they go? As Rachel Humphrey asked on Saturday, can the ‘No excuses’ setting only exist because there are others that will take the fall out? Quite often in these discussions, people put special schools to one side – “of course you’ll be different, you have different/ extreme circumstances” – but actually, as an SEMH school, all our pupils have all come from mainstream where they’ve left behind just as many pupils that could be here. We can’t afford to have strict ‘No Excuses’. We’re the end of the road. If I was asked during the debates, I would have said that we operate flexibly around our pupils’ needs. Having thought and read though, I think we do have ‘No Excuses’. We don’t let our pupils make excuses, but we do understand they have reasons.
Reading Jonathan Porter’s speech in favour of ‘No excuses discipline works’ I was struck with how much I agreed with – and how much of that we do. I wouldn’t have said it was ‘No Excuses’ but it seems to fit. I suppose it’s how we sanction pupils that’s probably different. Jonathan mentions the understandable points of uniform, time keeping, equipment. We have an awesome Attendance Officer solidly enforcing the expectation pupils are in by the 9.00 bell, so we get that one. Uniform’s not quite the same as it’s not compulsory, but they do get randomly rewarded if they’re in it when the Head does a spot-check and most of the boys wear it. As far as PE kit and equipment go, we recognise that there may be issues with these and so we’ve taken the problem away by providing (and washing) it all. No arguments over forgotten kits or swanky pencil cases. No excuses.
I recognise the tale of ‘Tom’ all to well. Our pupils come with chunky files and muliple agency recommendations. Very often there’s a history of sporadic school attendance and often a request for phased introduction. I’ve baselined kids hiding under tables, brandishing weapons and screaming their hearts out – some are being properly naughty, most of them are just scared. They’ve heard all sorts of tales, they’re pretty much de-schooled and I’m sitting there asking them to reveal how embarrassed they are about their reading levels. We don’t have them start part time. They come in full time and if they have a tantrum we sort it out and get them back in class. That’s where the vast majority stay for most of the time.
So it seems like we’re actually a lot more ‘No Excuses’ than I’d thought we were. Some of this is probably to do with how my idea of what ‘No Excuses’ means is perhaps a bit harsher than the reality, but I keep coming back to this idea of ‘Reasons’. We have our fixed heirarchy of sanctions, and obviously if there’s something violent or seriously disruptive there’ll be serious consequences, but we if we can understand the reasons for a behaviour, we can help solve the problem. For that reason I’m much more comfortable with John Tomsett’s approach.
If a pupil doesn’t take their medication in the morning, we don’t let them use it as an excuse not to behave. We deal with the behaviours as they happen, but if they reveal half way trough the day that they haven’t had their morning dose, it goes a long way to explaining why they’ve been up in the air and we know there’s nothing more serious* going on. We’d much rather they tell us first thing that they’ve not had their tablet – not as an excuse, but as a reason why they may need a few minutes out or be struggling to focus.
*I saw Sean Harford commented around safeguarding and ‘No Excuses’. This is another big niggle I’ve got going on. We know our boys. We know the patterns of behaviour they have and this is really important for spotting safeguarding issues. I worry that ‘No Excuses’ means that you can miss the reasons and miss what’s going on in a pupil’s life. They change so subtly and it’s for us to spot these things. this isn’t a special school thing, this is an every school thing.
One of the points in favour of ‘No Excuses’ that I read was how you can’t have different things for different people or it all falls apart. I agree with this for the majority of the time, but I also think there are occasions where it is acceptable, and even beneficial to other pupils, to allow for concessions. I think it can be good for them to see that other people get different things sometimes. They don’t always like it at the time, but I think it can be important for pupils to see that sometimes things get in the way and consideration is given, whether that’s not having homework because they were kicked out of their home in the middle of the night, or Year 11 allowed to go off site for lunch and the others not. The way we deal with and explain it to pupils is important.
We aren’t perfect. There are times where we need to be more consistent and I would argue there are probably times where we could’ve been more flexible. We are facing the challenges of a fairly rapid school expansion within a building that doesn’t expand at the same rate. We have staff with 20+ years service (at our school) and staff fresh from a mainstream setting. There are more voices and opinions of how things should work than ever before and we need to do the best we can for our pupils. We are good at reviewing our systems regularly and understand that what works for KS4 one year might be totally inappropriate for the next. We’re small and can afford to make changes, but as we grow it is becoming harder.
Ultimately though, pupils like boundaries, they like to know where they stand and quite often ours come from a home life where the boundaries don’t exist. We can’t offer a ‘No Excuses’ environment where if a kid, or their family, doesn’t tow the line then they can go elsewhere. We are the end. We are it. People are surprised when they see how our pupils behave and what they achieve. We don’t let them use their backgrounds as an excuse not to do well, but there are reasons why they have a place with us and we need to recognise that.