Thoughts on ‘no excuses’ discipline

I attended the Michaela debate on Saturday 23rd April. The debate on ‘No excuses discipline works’ had me thinking the most, with the barrister-esque Jonathan Porter speaking against the wise and fatherly John Tomsett. It was a brilliant debate. They have both since posted their transcripts online, and other prominent bloggers who were present have offered their responses; this has in turn produced a lot of reaction from people not present for the debates.

All this has shown sharp divisions in the first order debate: people’s opinions and interpretations of ‘no excuses’ discipline and what it means. Yet it’s clear from the sharp divide that there are serious second order issues: what a behaviour system is for, and what values ought to underpin it.

It’s increasingly clear that big ethical questions pervade and underlie this entire discussion. For example, both sides grapple with the idea of fairness:

  1. No excuses discipline ensures fairness, as all children are held to the same standards and given the same sanctions when those are not met, regardless of who they are.
  2. No excuses discipline is not fair as it ignores the vastly different situations that children come from.

Secondly, both sides marshall the ideas of autonomy and freedom:

  1. No excuses discipline allows children to flourish and gain true autonomy as they mature, since they are supported through incentives to choose what is right (e.g. 1 and e.g. 2)
  2. No excuses discipline quenches children’s autonomy and freedom with its rigid rules, unapologetic authoritarianism and lack of space for personal expression and choice (e.g.)

Thirdly, everyone scrambles to claim love:

  1. No excuses discipline is unloving because it shows a distinct lack of empathy with the difficult situations that many students come from, the toxic stress that many go through. (e.g.)
  2. No excuses discipline is loving because it expects and encourages students to attain the same standards of character and behaviour that will allow them to flourish in later life (e.g.)

Fourthly, the ideas of rules, deontology, flexibility:

  1. No excuses discipline and the standards it upholds are simply things that are ‘right’ and must be uphold in and of themselves; they also provide children with firm boundaries that lead to a sense of safety and security
  2. No excuses discipline and the standards it upholds is too inflexible and rigid for the complexities of the real world, tying the hands of schools in difficult cases, such as where parents reject school punishments and take their children out of school in protest of school rules (e.g.)

Fifthly, flowing from the above, ideas on the ethics related to vulnerable and marginalised students:

  1. No excuses discipline ends up excluding the most vulnerable/difficult students (e.g.) and thus fails to serve them well.
  2. No excuses discipline provides the necessary framework (through stable enforced boundaries) for vulnerable and difficult students to begin to change; and it prevents vulnerable students from affecting the education of other vulnerable students.

I’m just scratching the surface. In any case, it’s useful to see the debate in terms of these deeper issues. For one, it shows why this debate is so polarizing – a debate about behaviour systems is really a battle to define and defend certain interpretations of concepts that are far more fundamental than the behaviour systems themselves. And like most battles of such fundamental nature, most people come into the debate with pre-existing strong views on love, autonomy, fairness, freedom, rules, etc. In such a case, the outcome of such debate is often pre-determined by one’s pre-existing views.

However, don’t get me wrong – I am not therefore advocating for a fence-sitting position, or a superficial sort of ‘balance’/’third way’. The debate is real and I believe there are real answers. I’m just wanting to illustrate how complex and how deep the debate goes, beyond the usual pragmatics and counter-examples that blogs throw up. In order to find a way forward, I think it’s most helpful to think about the issue in terms of the deeper concepts that are in contention, rather than presenting issues on the surface.

So, my own view. Disclosure: I have visited Michaela school and like seemingly every other observer, I am awestruck and fully convinced by what I saw there. So I write from a biased perspective, as we all do – though my arguments, I hope, stand up on their own.

So, before the debate I sided with Jonathan Porter, and I still do, but John Tomsett threw some hefty points into the room; hefty enough to make me think that ‘no excuses’ discipline is not quite the full picture that first convinced me at Michaela. He cited study after study showing the failure of no excuses discipline in American states where it has been a key feature of many schools.

Yet Jonny Porter had very convincing replies: he talked at length about the necessity of narrating reasons behind every behavioural correction, the importance of support, the subsidised school stationery shop, the empathetic and loving way he gives detentions to children who break minor school rules.

But my concern is that none of Jonny’s replies are captured or implied by the term ‘no excuses’. The term associates itself with a rather narrow range of concepts like sanctions, consistency, a certain type of fairness, rigidity, and authority. As Jonny himself conceded, some unsuccessful schools that use a ‘no excuses’ approach indeed come across as harshly punitive to their students. While one might say such schools simply do ‘no excuses’ badly, it might make more sense to say that what Jonny advocates is no excuses + a whole host of other supporting measures. Indeed, from my own observations and from many bloggers descriptions of Michaela’s approach, they undoubtedly practise ‘no excuses’ – but also a great deal more besides. And it’s possibly this great deal more, together with ‘no excuses discipline’, that makes Michaela’s behaviour work so well (in contrast to the schools mentioned in Tomsett’s talk).

Another angle for my impressions: I believe ‘no excuses discipline’ by itself, with no other supporting strategies, is open to the substantial ideological criticisms mentioned above, hence the results of Tomsett’s cited studies. But I think Michaela’s behaviour system does so much else in conjunction with a no excuses approach, which addresses all these problems.

Substantively, looking at it in terms of the concepts I discussed earlier, here’s a restatement of lots of Jonny’s points:

  1. In terms of fairness, yes children come from vastly different backgrounds; they start in year 7 with vastly different pre-existing abilities to meet very high standards of behaviour and character. Therefore provide high support (such as mentoring, subsidised stationery, places to do IT homework) and intensive incentives (constant giving of merits, demerits, sanctions, appreciations) for the children who find it especially hard. They do this because they want to contribute to a fairer society where children from difficult backgrounds nonetheless become wonderful model citizens.
  2. In terms of autonomy, yes they do not allow space for children to express contrary choices to our rigid standards. However, by incessantly and loudly narrating behaviour policies and sanctions in terms of how they contribute to common goals – ‘we all want you to become responsible, self-controlled, organised, kind people who have a great education and thus wonderful opportunities for your future’ – children freely and autonomously buy into the school and thus gladly accept its no-excuses behaviour policies.
  3. Yes, it can seem unsympathetic and even unloving when they refuse to compromise on sanctions despite the difficult circumstances that some children face. Yet this is because there is real love for the pupils and thus there is the desire for them to become reliable, trustworthy and honourable people who fulfil their responsibilities no matter what adverse circumstances they meet. The first step in becoming such people is by encouraging them to adopt this attitude to their school responsibilities, aided by the ‘nudge’ of narrated no-excuse sanctions. Love your pupils by enlarging your vision of what they can grow to become.
  4. In terms of excluding the most difficult/vulnerable, Jonny himself mentioned the case of Tom: a difficult child at primary but one who is progressing, learning, happy. It’s clear that the vision at Michaela, contrary to some caricatures-from-a-distance, has such children and their long-term wellbeing clearly in mind – time will tell what exclusion rates/pass rates are like for such children as these, but there is at least one success story we’ve heard (and I’m sure many others too).

In summary, the ‘Michaela way’ seems to me to involve ‘no excuses’ plus much more besides: it involves high standards so children become the best they can be, consistent sanctions to inculcate good habits, increasing support for children who find the standards hard to meet, and joyous teacher-pupil relationships so that children buy into the system. Specifically, at Michaela, ‘no excuses’ means high expectations and high achievements – seeing children act in ways I never dreamed were possible. A ‘bring a pen’ policy actually results in pupils who are amazingly organised, responsible and ready to learn. A ‘silent corridors’ policy really means, as my Michaela year 8 tour guides explained and as I saw, that they feel completely safe and get to lessons totally focused and ready to learn. SLANT (with a smile!) showed me how much all children can really learn when they are challenged to pay complete attention at all times.

In its fullness, it’s a system of great faith in the potential of children regardless of their background. It’s a system filled with inspiring hope on the power of schools and teachers to bring about real social change. Most of all, it seems to be a system that is filled with love for the children in the school. ‘No excuses’ as a term, in itself, doesn’t quite capture this mixture of faith, hope and love. But it’s clear that within this context, these children are being held – and holding themselvesto a very high standard while meeting it joyfully.

All that said, Tomsett did give me pause for thought on one issue. What if parents are unsupportive of a no excuses approach? He cites his own school which serves mainly white working class pupils – a group who commonly don’t value education, and a group I didn’t see much of at Michaela. Michaela again is upfront in demanding the support of parents for their policies, but what if they simply don’t? – like Tomsett’s example of Jordan’s haircut. I would optimistically wish that Michaela’s faith hope and love, seen in action, could convince every parent, but it seems like from Didau’s account the school already concedes that they currently can’t. I’d love to hear more on Michaela’s views on this issue.

Nonetheless, many schools in this country have intakes with wonderfully supportive parents with challenging children. Where such parents are on board with a school and its staff, I have no doubt in the success of the Michaela way: no excuses/sky high expectations delivered with visible and unwavering faith, hope and love for the pupils there.

No one is served by dismissing Michaela’s behaviour system quickly, or by claiming a monopoly on love, or by impugning the motives of the staff there. You might nonetheless take issue with ‘no excuses’ as a term, with its punitive connotations and uncaring demeanour. But there is a huge amount to learn from the underlying ideas, concepts and love behind the Michaela way, especially if you have the opportunity to see the children there.

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