On ‘No Excuses’


A very long post!

Here in Scotland over the last decade or so, we’ve developed a bit of a consensus about our curriculum and the way we run our classes.  Of course, there’s never any such thing as universal agreement on anything – there are still some people who believe the earth is flat – but I’d suggest that we are generally largely on board with our constructivist Curriculum for Excellence, despite its vagueness and its problems with content and knowledge, and largely in agreement that relationships are the most impost important aspect of the ethos of any classroom, despite concerns about the minority of pupils who cause disruption.

So it’s odd watching England tear itself apart in ‘traditionalist vs. progressive’ Twitter invective, and bizarre to see platforms given on the blogosphere, CPD events and even conferences to half-baked ideas on both sides of the invective.  And most bizarre of all is the ‘no excuses’ movement in regard to behaviour.

We know the drill (literally); children need consistent oversight of their behaviour in order to ensure ‘they direct their full attention to the instruction’.  Of course, it’s intimately linked with Direct Instruction models of teaching; engage with any ‘trad’ teacher and at some point they’ll say ‘you should read Hirsch / Willingham’ as if they are sharing divine revelation with you.  I have, of course, and a whole lot more besides, and recognise what those writers offer in the context of a wide range of theoretical perspectives out there.  But a DI model isn’t the issue here; the issue is that traditionalist teachers have used the DI model – with its focus on knowledge, content, teacher expertise, drill and practice – to smuggle into classrooms, dining halls, corridors, playgrounds and even pupils’ own spaces like common rooms an approach to behaviour that is authoritarian, damaging and, potentially, supportive of bad, bad teaching.

Let me put some cards on the table.  First, even though if I had to I would describe myself as ‘progressive’ (as progressive as someone whose instincts lie at the Illich, Fanon and Freire end of the spectrum can be), I have no antipathy to ‘knowledge’, and no pupil goes out of my door not knowing something they need to know – and that’s the same for any good teacher, ‘trad’ and ‘prog’ alike.

Secondly, ‘No excuses’ policies are clearly a dumbed down, barely understood version of Assertive Discipline; it is as if some teachers have looked at a poster about it through the wrong end of a telescope while passing by in a car at 50 miles per hour, have channelled their 18th century Punch to declare ‘That’s the way to do it’ and then gone on the road in their brightly coloured booths to tout snake oil as the next sliced bread.

Now, there is nothing essentially wrong with Assertive Discipline – and I say that because I know about it.  I am an accredited Assertive Discipline trainer, and have delivered courses in it from Shetland to Leeds. I’ve worked with Geoff Moss of Behaviour and Learning Management, the foremost trainer in the country for Assertive Discipline courses.  So I am clearly not – nor have I ever been – the wishy washy hippy who waves flowers at a classroom that has descended into mayhem while cuddling a teenage psychopath.

The basic precepts of Assertive Discipline – set clear rules and procedures, encourage adherence to them with the use of consistent praise and rewards and discourage breaking them with the use of consistent sanctions – are fine.  Over 16 years, I have seen student teachers turn classroom behaviour around (for a while) with class wide reward schemes like ‘marbles in a jar’, or improve their lessons by habituating themselves and their pupils to consistent routines such as the instructional PRINT.  It can be very successful at changing behaviour – because that very limited outcome is its only aspiration.  Even Lee Canter, that Jerry Springer-esque doyen of the whole movement, was absolutely clear; when all is said and done, when all of the marbles are in the jar, when all the demerits have been handed out, when all (positive or negative) phone calls to parents have been made, you should – must – ‘build relationships.’

And behaviourist strategies cannot do that; they aren’t designed to.  Behaviourism focusses only on behaviour, not on minds and certainly not on hearts.  Dogs are conditioned to respond in a particular way to a stimulus, but it has nothing to do with understanding, since we can elicit exactly the same response quite quickly if we change the stimulus.  Similarly, schools which use ‘no excuses’ policies are frequently lauded for their ‘respectful ethos’, yet we cannot know that a policy that sends children to detention for forgetting their homework or for dropping litter or for talking in the corridor builds respect; all we can with any certainty say is that they are behaving in a conditioned way to a stimulus, as if they respect us.  They may not – indeed, it’s absolutely certain that some won’t – and, if we changed the stimulus we use to encourage respectful behaviour, we’d get just the same result.

That’s why I think that we have to be much lighter on our feet in terms of behaviour management, that we have to utilise not just the blunt tool of behaviourism, but cognitive constructivist and social constructivist strategies too.  It’s the core of the way I’ve been getting student teachers to conceptualise behaviour management for years now, and it’s something I’ll return to in later posts, perhaps.

But in the meantime, ‘no excuses’ is a stony ground for our classrooms, and for anyone who wants to build relationships with pupils.  Just think about it; what other human relationship imposes such conditions?  Would you marry someone who said there was no excuse for not having the dinner ready on time, and who put you in a room until you’d learned your lesson? How would you react if you visited acquaintances and they sent their elderly mother to the garden shed because she’d lost her purse through a hole in her coat pocket?   The notion of there being no excuse for behaviour is to deny the very essence of humanity, people making their way in a universe which is at times capricious and unpredictable, a universe in which in the face of things we can’t control we all have the right to make judgements which at times will be flawed or judgments which at times might be unfathomable to others.

There is no excuse for me being annoyed, or depressed, or distracted, or unhappy?  You expect me to respect that?  Feck off. Of course, OFSTED will remark on how respectful I am because I won’t say that to your face or you’ll send me to the shed; but still, seriously, feck off.

But children think differently, we are told, and need guidance.  One recent conference presenter claimed ‘Children do not always know how to behave because they are children’.  Just think about that; children, who from the moment they are born interact with their environment, who learn at a few weeks old how to respond to  facial features, who make gestures from an early age (my beautiful six month old great-nephew has learned how to manipulate visitors with the cuteness of the way he cocks his head to one side when you speak to him), who cooperate with each other in the sand pit at nursery, who learn to walk and talk and read and count and eat with a spoon and make friends and enemies and learn the difference between a friendly dog and a scary dog before they even come to school  – these children ‘don’t know how to behave’.

Even if that ludicrous, arrogant statement were true,  it seems rather odd that you would then put all your eggs in the one behaviourist basket  that explicitly doesn’t take knowledge and thinking  into account.  The message is, ‘I don’t care what you think or feel or believe or what has happened to you or how upset you are or what you’ve learned about the myriad of human beings you’ve interacted with in your life; there is no excuse.  Now go to detention.’   It is wrapped up in the lie that this builds ‘resilience’; but unless it engages with thinking, with emotional awareness, unless it coaches and counsels and mentors, it does nothing other than teach the child to acquiesce, and the benefits to be gained – the avoidance of discomfort, of blame, of pain – from continued  acquiescence.

And for bad teachers (or underqualified or unqualified or lazy teachers), this is hugely attractive.   It puts them on a pedestal, raises their own esteem at the expense of the pupils’.  The rash of advertisements for ‘detention directors’ is often couched in the language of success – ‘excellent learning environment, ‘achieve academically at the highest level’ – and yet they fail to answer the  question of what the hell is going on in those schools that a detention director at a salary of thirty grand a year is required at all.

But questions don’t go down well with the ‘no excuses’ brigade. The head teacher of one of those schools recently claimed that ‘All good schools run detentions.  They would not be good without them.’   Just think about those two assertions.  All good schools run detentions; what is the evidence for that, that every single good school has a detention system? Data please?  And can we conceive of a good school that doesn’t? Well, if you can, you are apparently wrong, because schools cannot be good without a detention system.  By definition. Yet query those assumptions and you’ll find yourself Twitter-blocked…

And it excuses bad teaching, because ‘no excuses’ is, for some, simply a means of controlling those awkward moments when a teacher is shown to be an absolute arse.  Another ‘trad’ blogger, mulling over notions of authority, recently wrote the following:

‘Intellectual authority is related to moral authority, but distinct. In most cases, the teacher knows more than the pupil, and if the pupil is going to learn, he needs to recognise this, so that he can move towards the expertise which the teacher has.

‘There will be times, however, when the pupil genuinely knows more than the teacher. An older pupil may have a special interest in a topic and have done considerable extra reading and study, and have acquired greater knowledge than the teacher in that particular area. This is conceivable, but it is a special case. In these cases, the pupil may realise that the teacher has made a factual error. For example, he may have given an incorrect date for an historical event.

‘What should the pupil do in this circumstance? He may raise his hand and, after having obtained permission to speak, point out the error to the teacher. The teacher may be convinced that he is right nevertheless. In this case, the pupil should drop his objection until such a time as it can be pursued without publicly undermining the authority of his teacher.’

So there you have it.  ‘Trad’ behaviour management is not about the purity of knowledge, the primacy of content;  it is not about truth or wisdom or even basic accuracy.  It is about the preservation of an illusion, the illusion that teachers are superior, infallible.  It is as intellectually bankrupt as those Victorian teachers  who believed they donned their authority every morning with their academic cloaks.  It is ineffably smug.

And there is no excuse for that.

Some reading:

The Paradox of Success at a No-Excuses School

To what extent is behaviour a problem in English schools? Exploring the scale and prevalence of deficits in classroom climate

Schools that accept ‘no excuses’ from students are not helping them



  1. As good a piece as any I have read from your eloquent virtual pen. It gets to the heart of the business of learning and teaching, with a passion that should be admired.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A lovely post which gets to the nub of the issues. I think there is a great deal to be reflected upon, but your ideas of the trad mentality being rooted in rational legal authority I feel are spot on and the conflation of “content centred” and “no excuses” is merely a strategy to allow a coercive approach back into the classroom at a time when human rights are all the rage.

    There is a good deal of evidence that shows that most (but not all i think) human beings are pair forming primates that have social needs in addition to intellectual and physical needs. I think it is clear that not all human beings are identical and that against a number of variables human beings show either larger or smaller variances from the average. Children are like this and teachers are like this (remember teachers used to be children indeed some are children).

    All people are individuals and some are individual in more ways than others. For me the trad vs prog thing is mainly about a teachers’ individual and motivations ability to make relationships with young people, relationships which are the basis of effective (and perhaps efficient) learning.

    I sincerely believe that some teachers are unable to form relationships based upon mutual respect and trust and morally grounded, they need to form relationships which are based upon rational legal authority to functio effectively. Before I became a teacher I was a successful manager and I saw a good few examples of people who were introverts away from work, but given a “role” in an organisation which carries rational legal authority they are able to thrive and their introversion is pushed aside. I see many comedians and entertainers who talk about being introverts off stage but when given the role as “entertainer” on stage they suddenly become the most extroverted people. Away from entertainment they are quite shy. In organisations I saw people promoted to the point at which they needed to reply much more on their personalities to make relationships and at that point some of them floundered, despite coaching and training.

    I say all of this because I believe that the extreme “traditionalists” exhibit these types of behaviours and symptoms. Most eclectic teachers will adopt the role most appropriate to the context and the children they teach tend to thrive. These people respond to individual needs as they are able to empathise well and have a range of responses.

    People who identify as extreme trad or extreme prog and argue that there is a dichotomy here do so for this very good reason I suspect. This is the way they see the world. I would suggest that the issue is a temporal one in which you cannot be both trad and prog in the same human transaction but it is clearly possible to be so in an asynchorous world.

    Most teachers for me are not at the extremes of the spectrum. Those at the prog end are for me a bit hamstrung as there are times you need to reply upon rational legal authority. Those at the trad end are however for me severely hamstrung as to use rational legal authority to force obedience in a situation in which children are legally obliged to be in school is immoral except in severe circumstances mainly to do with safety and child protection.

    In my experience there are very few hardcore trad teachers who are this way due to their personality traits. Most I see are more in it to make teaching easier and more comfortable. Some have had very negative experiences in schools at which behaviour was out of control. Some have had negative experiences early on in their teaching careers.

    I have seen teachers who espouse “we must control them” mentalities move to new schools and suddenly become much more relaxed and effective and their need to enforce obedience fades away.

    I really have seen students who behave appallingly in the classroom of one teacher behave well in the classroom of another teacher, and this a result of the relationships between teacher and student.

    So as you might guess, I am wholeheartedly in agreement that teaching is about relationships that are not based upon rational legal authority, with rational legal authority reserved for individual transactions.

    Do not misunderstand me, I believe that policies and procedures, consistency, rewards and punishments, knowledge and content are all key factors in the teaching and learning process, but they should not be conflated to meet the needs of a few teachers.

    The online trad vs prog spats are for me examples of where the extreme ends of the spectrum come together, but most teachers carry on regardless blissfully unaware that there are asynchronously both trad and prog.

    My view is that it is in the interests of the extremes to conflate the issues, and that twitter/bloggersphere has provided and outlet for the more introverted twit/twitterer to have a voice. This I have seen described as “for too long introverted teachers have had no say, but no longer” or “for so long the progressive orthodoxy has had rational legal authority in the education system, but no longer we now have a voice”.

    Worst of all for me is the idea that the best way to maintain relationships between human beings is by “rational legal authority”. I believe history/tradition shows us that this approach, while effective as a short term expedient will pose problems in the long term.

    I never attempted to instil in my children or grandchildren the idea that the best way to maintain relationships is by force, and I would be dismayed if any school they had attended had done so.

    I shall follow you blog with interest. Thanks for this one

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great piece. Reading the recent advertisement by an academy chain for a Director of Isolations and Detentions, I decided that the 20th century never happened. Your warm and subtle writing shows the continuing humane spirit of Freud, Neill, Rosen & countless others.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m with you almost all the way here Raymond – and I particularly like Brian’s follow-up comments. I think where I differ is with your use of the long blog quote towards the end. I think the key thing for me in that quote is the use of the phrase “The teacher may be convinced that he is right nevertheless.”

    Ultimately, if the teacher does indeed still believe that they are right (rather than that they are pretty certain they are), then I would say this is one of those individual ‘transactions’ which Brian mentions, where the rational legal authority rests with the teacher, and – indeed – I would say that the teacher has an obligation to the rest of their students to stand by their understanding of whatever it is that is being discussed. If simply out of ‘respect’ for the student they politely conceded the point – despite being still convinced that they are right – then they have knowingly allowed confusion to spread into the minds of their tutees.

    Whilst I totally agree that legal authority simply cannot be the basis for the everyday workings of good education and, indeed, the best of human functional interactions, there has to be a mutual understanding that – at key moments – the authority rests with the teacher. It’s nothing to do with how much they deserve it as people, it is simply to do with the functional roles of that situation.

    If, in protesting against ‘no excuses’ policies which seem to single-handedly use authority to control behaviour, we reject any notions of teacher authority, then we really have got it wrong to my mind. If children only ever need to acquiesce to what an adult teacher or parent wants when they happen to agree with them, then as a society we might as well stop bothering with trying to learn from the wisdom of the past at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for your considered comments, Chris: I know we’ve had a bit of a back-and-forth on Twitter about this.

      I do absolutely accept that teachers adopt the role in which ‘authority’ is divested – you’re right, that’s just the way of the world, and accepting that authority is part of the job. Personally, though, I see that authority being functional; the purpose of it is not for the preservation of anything about the teacher, but is for the benefit of the pupils. At just a basic health and safety level, I have authority to prevent pupils harming themselves or each other. Build it from that foundation, and I’m happy.

      So whether or not the teacher is convinced – or even knows – they are right is not a question of authority but of learning. When I’m discussing something with my pals and a disagreement about fact arises, one doesn’t shut down the other: one of us inevitably whips out the smart phone and googles the answer. If I’m proven wrong, I make some comment about being an arse and we get another round of drinks in, and I go home squiffy and wiser. Do they respect me less? Has our friendship been damaged? Are my pals going to hold it against me for the rest of my life? Not at all.

      Why can’t we be that relaxed in classrooms? Aren’t we actually demonstrating our insecurity, our feeling uncomfortable in the role, if we daren’t allow any public questioning of our knowledge, or position, our ‘authority’? I don’t know…

      But as I say, many thanks…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your time, thoughts and comments Raymond – this very nicely answers my doubts, and makes this post very powerful indeed.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this Raymond. Nice thinking, now we need to make it more widely available in the face of the authoritarian views pushed out by Government and Govt Adviser alike. ‘Teachers should exude authority’ they say, to what end with children who have unheard needs. I look forward to reading you again. Very best wishes, Geoff

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s