I read John Tomsett’s account of his speech at Michaela School’s Debate on 23rd April on why ‘no excuses’ behaviour systems don’t work with great interest. As a speech it is well researched, well argued and kinda misses the point. He acknowledges this when he says, “If I’m against “no excuses” discipline, I must, logically, be in favour of “excuses” discipline” but then dismisses this as “nonsense”. But is it? He says that “relentless rigorous routines, and consistent, and I mean truly consistent, implementation of behaviour systems were the bedrock of good behaviour management in schools”. What’s that if not ‘no excuses’ discipline? The position he argues against is a straw man. He says, “You need a bedrock and a heart.” Well, who would disagree with that? Are there schools championing heartlessness? And in claiming “You need rigour with a smile, not a SLANT” he presents a false dichotomy. Why not SLANT* with a smile?

I’m one of John’s biggest fans and love the approach to school leadership he outlines in his wonderful book, Love Over Fear, but despite his great wisdom, on this question I’m not sure he’s thought through the consequences of opposing the argument that ‘no excuses’ discipline works. I’ve argued before that school behaviour systems based on zero tolerance and inflexibility appear to be at odds with what we know about teenage psychology and brain development, but I’m also very clear that making or accepting excuses is not the answer.

In this post I made the following point:

There’s no reason why ‘no excuses’ has to equate with being punitive and making children suffer. I see it more as holding children to account for their effort, attitude and behaviour. If  ‘no excuses’ results in relatively minor but consistently applied consequences, maybe those being ‘punished’ might feel differently. Maybe they wouldn’t rage at the injustice, but take their medicine with good grace. Maybe not, but there would be ‘no excuse’ for choosing to take it with bad grace.

This speaks to John’s example of Jordan, he of the unreasonable father and the “extreme” haircut:

Meet Jordan. He came to school with a 0.5 shaven Mohican haircut that broke our rules. I imposed the standard sanction, loss of breaks and lunchtimes until the hair grows back to a number 2. His dad was outraged and refused to support us. He went to the press, not just the York Press, but the Sun, the Mail, and the Mirror. He kept Jordan at home instead of coming into school, six months before his GCSEs. Children are influenced by the example their parents set.

Clearly if a school has an absolute rule on what haircuts students are allowed to have then it becomes a nonsense to just ignore the flaunting of such a rule. There is no excuse for Jordan’s haircut and even less excuse for his father’s refusal to support the school.

However, there are two possibilities which John doesn’t explore in his blog. Firstly, do schools really need to have rules about students’ hair styles? This is very much a question for debate and I’m not claiming I know the answer. But I do think schools tend to be too quick to impose arbitrary boundaries without really thinking through the consequences. Second, just because we’ve decided to ban something doesn’t mean we therefore need to enshrine inflexible consequences. Does a breach of the hair style rule warrant the consequence mandated by the school? Cannot flexibility of consequences be built into a system where there are no excuses for poor behaviour?

How we behave is a matter of choice. We all need to be helped to make good choices sometimes, and we all benefit from being reminded of the consequences for poor choices. And at the same time, we all deserve at least a second chance. But if children are ever going to be responsible for their actions we need to stop making excuses for them. There may be perfectly valid reasons for our behaviour but it’s up to us whether or not we choose to use these reasons as an excuse.

The poet Alexander Pope said, “An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie, guarded.” Making an excuse is a failure to take responsibility. Accepting an excuse for poor behaviour is to accept that children have no choice. What we accept becomes acceptable and what we permit we promote.

John talks about alternatives to ‘no excuses’, but what I think he really means is alternatives to cruelty and injustice. His insistence of love over fear is admirable but runs the risk of becoming meaningless through repetition. Of course we should approach children with respect, kindness and honesty, but just being respectful, kind and honest may not be enough. As every parent knows, sometimes we also have to be firm. Sometimes refusing to accept excuses is the only respectful, kind and honest option.

What I know about whether no excuses behaviours policies work is this: Instilling a culture where children are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and excuses are not accepted is no excuse for inflexible tyranny or harsh punishment.

*Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer, Nod your head, and Track the speaker – one of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion techniques.