And oftentimes excusing of a fault
Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse,
As patches set upon a little breach
Discredit more in hiding of the fault
Than did the fault before it was so patch’d.

Shakespeare, King John

Let’s begin by defining our terms. The dictionary is instructive and offers several different definitions:

  1. an explanation offered as a reason for being excused; a plea offered in extenuation of a fault or for release from an obligation, promise,etc.:
    His excuse for being late was unacceptable.
  2. a ground or reason for excusing or being excused: Ignorance is no excuse.
  3. a pretext or subterfuge: He uses his poor health as an excuse for evading all responsibility.

According to two of these, a reason is pretty much the same as an excuse. Since writing about ‘no excuses‘ culture I’ve been issued various challenges (some of them more polite than others) one of which was to explain when a valid reason might be acceptable as an excuse.

But before I do that I’d like you to consider a scenario suggested by Sue Cowley. Some years back her house was hit by lightning. The resulting inferno destroyed, amongst other things, her children’s school equipment and uniform.

Sue argues that “If, when our children returned to school, they had been punished for ‘breaking the rules’, because they were not in uniform, and did not have their school books, then their school would officially have had a ‘no excuses’ culture and policy. There would literally have been ‘no excuses’ for breaking the rules. There would be no ‘reasonable excuse’ for which the rules could be bent.” Clearly such a position would be ludicrous.

Now this is an extreme example and designing school policies based on extremes is probably unnecessary. What is likely is that there will be less extreme, but equally valid reasons for children not being equipped and in uniform. If a child were to arrive in school and immediately seek out a teacher to explain why they were in breach of rules and ask for help, what school would be so unjust and inflexible as to punish them? But if, on the other hand, the same child arrived at school and used their reason as an excuse: “But, sir, it’s not fair!” Can you see the difference?

Reasons are just reasons: shit happens. But excuses take on a different shape altogether. Tomorrow I have to attend a Speed Awareness Course in Bristol for breaking the speed limit. I was photographed going at 55 miles per hour on a stretch of Motorway which had a temporary restriction of 50 mph. It was late at night and the road was empty. My fine seemed totally arbitrary and unfair. So what, I wasn’t endangering anyone. This shouldn’t apply in my special circumstances, I thought bitterly. But the law is implacable and does not care. The letter I got from Avon and Somerset police made it clear that there were no circumstances in which breaking the speed limit was acceptable. There were no excuses.

Although I didn’t even have a particularly good reason, I wanted an exception to be made. Surely my special circumstances made an inflexible application of the law unfair and unreasonable? And so it may be, but if I want to keep my driving licence then I know exactly what’s expected of me. Problems often arise when the punishment seems too harsh to fit the crime. No excuses need not (indeed, should not) mean no compassion or no flexibility. I’m grateful to have avoided getting points on my licence and my punishment may well help see the error of my ways.

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 a 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.

In both examples, a no excuses culture has its uses. In Sue’s example, it informs children of the course of action they need to take and allows them to either take responsibility or make an excuse. For instance, at Michaela, they have a school ‘shop’ on site to allow children to make sure they are properly equipped and in correct uniform. It really is up to them to do the right thing. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I seriously doubt any school would punish a child for doing their best to follow the rules in circumstances which are entirely outside of their control, but even if there are, at the very least the rules are consistent and everyone knows exactly what to expect.

Sue concludes her blog saying, “To this day, my son is terrified of lightning. And I don’t blame him. Because he has a perfectly reasonable excuse.”

I’d like to offer an alternative interpretation: Her son has a perfectly valid reason for being afraid of lightning; it’s up to him whether he uses this as an excuse.

And that’s the point I really want to make. 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. If children are ever going to be responsible for their actions we need to stop making excuses for them. As Alexander Pope said, “An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie, guarded.”

So, here’s my definition: making an excuse is failing to take responsibility.