We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.
Rudyard Kipling

I was a bit taken aback at the vigour and vitriol with which some people condemned Michaela School’s approach to behaviour. The argument seemed to go that if you refuse to accept poor behaviour then you simply pass on the problem to another school. As far as I can see, that’s entirely up to other schools.
Consider this scenario. A town has two secondary schools, New Free School and Old Comprehensive School. New Free School has just opened its doors and has made the decision that it will have very high standards of behaviour and a ‘no exceptions, no excuses’ culture. Failure to follow the rules will result in some sort of punishment. This approach is often applauded by parents until it’s their child who runs afoul of the system. Imagine a parent coming in to complain that it’s unfair their child has been set a detention and being told by the Head, “Well, I’m really sorry to hear that but I’m still not going to make an exception.” Parents are so used to being able to dictate terms to schools that this might come as something as a shock. But the message is clear – if you send your child to our school, then they will have to follow our rules. There may way well be reasons, but there are no excuses.
There are two possible ways out of this impasse. Either parents can reluctantly agree to support the school and the situation is swiftly resolved, or they can escalate matters and refuse to bend. When a rock meets a hard place something has to give. Usually it’s the school, but if you hold your nerve the parent’s only other option is to take their child elsewhere.
Now imagine you’re the Head of Old Comprehensive School. You have a choice to make. If you agree to take on this child you can either say, we have the same high standards of behaviour as New Free, or we don’t. What you accept will be acceptable. Most schools in this position accept excuses and make exceptions because that seems easier in the short term. But you’re storing up trouble for the long term. If all the parents that don’t like their children being made to follow school rules send their kids to Old Comprehensive, very soon you’ve got a sink. Standards of behaviour slip. Maybe results slip with them. What’s a parent to do then? Speaking for myself I know where I’d prefer my children to go (and where I’d rather work.)
So, what would happen if all schools were as intolerant of poor behaviour as New Free? What would happen to the children of parents who refused to support their school? Ultimately, they’d have no choice. And if you cannot choose a school where poor behaviour is tolerated then behaviour would improve. In all schools. The idea that you could argue against a systemic improvement in students’ behaviour makes little sense to me.
But, and it’s a big but, ‘no excuses’ should never be an excuse to victimise the most vulnerable.
Virtual Schools have parental responsibility for the education of Looked After Children and I’ve learned an awful lot from finding out about the problems they encounter over the past few months. It would appear that there are two very predictable patterns of behaviour for Looked After Children. The first is that normally quiet, compliant children often let rip after they’re taken into care. Whilst living with their parents they’ve had to be on high alert, but as soon as they’re relatively safe they can let down their guard. And usually they are angry. Don’t forget, your life has to be almost unimaginably harrowing before social services will take you into care. The second pattern is that normally quiet, compliant children who’ve been in care for years suddenly explode when they hit puberty. This might be because shared environmental influences (carers) begin to wear off, and non-shared influences (peers) and genetic influences (birth parents) tend to make themselves felt. Or it might be because neurological changes cause attachment disorders to start making themselves felt. Why doesn’t really matter – the pattern is predictable.
Now seeing as these patterns are so predictable, it seems reasonable to say that schools should plan for them. If a child is taken into care you should expect their anger and move mountains to make sure you don’t add to their misery by giving them an opportunity to make their school placement break down along with the rest of their lives. Likewise, if you have a Looked After Child who’s entering puberty, there is no excuse for failure to anticipate their likely patterns of behaviour. This doesn’t mean you have to excuse their behaviour or make an exception for rule breaking, but it does mean you do everything in your power to make sure they don’t get to break a rule. Schools that use their ‘no excuses’ culture to get rid of their most vulnerable students really have no excuse.
For what it’s worth, I feel reasonably certain that Michaela would do all in its power to prevent that from happening. They’ve created a strong cultural norm in which it’s ‘cool to be clever’ and bad behaviour is looked down on by peers. They’ve made it easy for students to wear the correct uniform and be properly equipped by running an on site ‘shop’. And they offer an open invitation to parents to come into the school at any time to show just how much their children are learning and enjoying school. Most problems can be anticipated and solved before they become problems.
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