There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the fault of his feet.

Samuel Beckett

Yesterday I attended a Speed Awareness Course. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was mainly relieved not to get another 3 points on my licence. At worst it would a dull four hours, at best I might learn something.

The course started with participants being asked about what excuses we might make for speeding. We came up with the usual suspects: hospital emergencies, first offences, “it’s perfectly safe on this stretch of road”, needing a clean licence in order to work, lack of clear signage etc. As we came up with this list we shared our stories of woe about how unfair it was that we had been caught speeding. One woman said she had never driven above the speed limit before in her life, another man claimed that a particular traffic camera was just there for entrapment. And so on.

The message from the course leaders was uncompromising. There are no valid excuses for breaking the law. Ignorance is no defence, neither is personal, subjective perceptions about whether the law is fair. The law is the law.

From there we went on to the discuss the reasons why we might exceed the speed limit and came up with impatience, lack of attention, peer pressure, lateness, tail-gating, confusion about the speed limit, the fact that it ‘feels safe’ to speed and pretty much everything else you might imagine. There are lots of reasons why you might speed, but no excuses. The right to drive depends on driving responsibly. If we fail to take responsibility for our actions then we must accept the consequence that we might lose the right to drive.

Of course, this isn’t the only consequence. it would be far worse if someone was killed or injured as a result of our choices. But, as the course leaders pointed, the biggest consequence is… nothing. The reason most people drive too fast is that nothing happens. Mostly we don’t get into accidents and we don’t get caught. We learn that we can get away with it. Lack of consequences becomes normal and as soon as a course of action becomes normal we default to it.

Once suitably softened up, we were told that change requires reason, desire and will. As well as having good reasons for obey the speed limit, I desire to do so. But will I?

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

In many schools, students default behaviour is to get away with whatever they can. They know where the ‘speed cameras’ are and behave appropriately when the head or senior members are staff are around. They also know where they can get away with it. Because there are no consequences, low-level disruption, rudeness, lack of punctuality all become normalised; everyone else is doing it. Where students are challenged, they have learned that their excuses will be accepted. Often teachers are leaned on to back down over ‘minor’ infringements and to see certain behaviour as just boisterous high spirits. Students learn not to take responsibility for their behaviour. On numerous I’ve witnessed a student break a rule only to say, “It wasn’t me!” or, even more commonly, “It wasn’t my fault,” or, “I didn’t mean it.” Admittedly, there are occasions when we unintentionally break the rules or make mistakes, but we still have to take responsibility for our actions.

In schools where there is a ‘no excuses’ culture, students know that whatever the reason for their actions, there is no excuse for not taking responsibility. They know they will always be held accountable regardless of their intentions. This makes it far easier to do the right thing.

In this post I looked at how trust and accountability must be combined if teachers are to thrive and I think the same holds true for children. We should trust and expect them to follow the rules everywhere, not just where they deem it appropriate and not just because they might be caught. If we build a culture where the social norms are challenged and try to remove ‘nothing’ as the normal consequence for rule breaking then we might create a more positive default option where children see taking responsibility as positive and desirable.

One incident from my visit to Michaela School stands out in my mind. During lunch, a student came up to Joe Kirby in the playground to say that the teacher with whom he was meant to be serving detention with hadn’t shown up. Joe asked him what he thought he should do. The boy said, “I wanted to do the detention so I just waited there. Please could you let sir know that I’ve done it?” This is the sort of social norm that would benefit any school.

As for me, attending ‘speed school’ has changed (hopefully permanently) my default option. I no longer intend to break the speed limit. After over two decades of driving, I’ve picked up some bad habits which I need to break, but I now have the will to to break them. So far I’m doing alright.

Here are some other posts about ‘no excuses’:

‘No excuses’ is no excuse

What ‘no excuses’ means to me