‘No excuses’ is not a solution for angry teens

Insisting disadvantage can be fixed with a traditional academic curriculum and a strong dose of discipline is not engaging with the issue. That method did nothing for my sister, and it will do nothing for others like her, says Kiran Gill

Last term there was a predictable exam hullabaloo when school GCSE data was published. It happens every year. This time the Department of Education also issued some tough talk about how it felt high results were being achieved: converter academies “lead the way in academic standards”; schools bucking the trend of underachieving poorer pupils were “refusing to accept second best”.

My sister’s school failed to understand the emotional and psychological side
of learning

King Solomon’s Academy (KSA) was a high flyer yet again, achieving a whopping 95 per cent A*-C including English and maths, with a cohort where three quarters are eligible for free school meals. KSA is well-known by practitioners and policymakers. It is beloved for its “no excuses” behaviour management style, including giving points for students sitting a certain way and “tracking” (watching) whoever is speaking. There are expectations of silence. Fingers are clicked to show agreement. Demerits are given for calling out. These strict rules and its aspiration to send every pupil to university are pointed to as causal factors in their exam success.

My sister didn’t get five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths. Adopted at two, she was a smiley, beautiful toddler but by the time she was 16, she didn’t feel like smiling. She felt like a failure.

Like many who’ve experienced trauma in infancy, her body floods with cortisol when situations become stressful. Exams triggered her fight or flight hormones. The capacity to think and access her long-term memory shut down. By year 10 she was in lower sets, never the priority. “They just cared about the ones who weren’t going to fail their GCSEs,” she said. When the school couldn’t fill an English post, her class got the supply teachers.

When my sister was taken from her birth mother, she was placed in care for a year, before being separated from the foster carer she then called mum and meeting a new mother all over again. These early relationships are where we learn what emotions are, how to interpret them and how to control them. When those relationships are damaged or damaging, learning can be too. As a teen, my sister struggled to trust and – like many children with attachment disorder – could be threatened by others’ behaviour, even when it wasn’t intended. Public criticisms or minor reprimands could prompt extreme reactions. At other times she just withdrew and switched off. If the teachers didn’t care, why should she?

Working in KSA, what struck me was the student-teacher relationships. Students were in classes of 20, and spent up to four hours a day with one form tutor, who also taught them a core subject. By year 11, many of the pupils had been taught by the same teachers in English, maths, languages and music every day for the past five years. Yet these aspects of the school model are overlooked. Why doesn’t Nick Gibb mention the importance of low teacher-pupil ratios and continuity of care?

Bethnal Green Academy is second in Schools Week’s league table of excellent exam outcomes with disadvantaged pupils. Despite similar outcomes, it has a very different style. Students take ownership of their learning and behaviour in a much more relaxed atmosphere. Academia is prized alongside subjects with opportunities for self-expression and success, even for those, like my sister, who struggle with exams. When I was there, student voice and active citizenships were key school priorities to empower pupils beyond school life. What these two different schools had in common was the ability for pupils to be recognised as individuals, and a commitment to combine high expectations with compassion and care.

“No excuses” is too easy an answer for too complex a problem, championed by those who want to believe disadvantage can be fixed with an academic curriculum and a strong dose of discipline. In the end, it was an apprenticeship that helped my sister realise her potential. She loves her job and knows she is a success. Her failure at school wasn’t because of too many excuses. It was a failure of the school to understand the emotional and psychological side of learning, the long-term effects of early disadvantage, and the value of relationships, praise and experience of success in helping pupils overcome them.

Enough with the tough talk. The real key to pupil success is compassionate action.

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  1. Tarjinder Gill

    Anecdote for anecdote. I honestly think it was no excuses that supported me to do well at school and unlike your sister, I didn’t get the reprieve of a happy family during my childhood.

    I am genuinly sorry for her but I don’t see how the school could have solved the problems of her early infanthood. Was she given the option of counselling? Also why is the expectation that it is school that will do this and not the family?

    As someone who is considering adopting a child who will be in similar circumstances I think it’s imperative that I should bear in mind that mental health issues may emerge.

    Dealing with those emotional and psychological problems does not involve bending the rules at school for one child over and over again, changing the entire school behaviour management policy or indeed the exam system.

    No matter what I’ve been through I can’t imagine being so narcissistic as to demand that my teachers or schools should have changed to accomodate me for problems they have not caused, in a way that might damage the prospects of other children.

    In the end – I will say it – if helping someone like me would affect the lifechances of everyone else in my old classes, never mind everyone in the school then the teachers and schools are right to choose the others.

    I am not worth 29 people, much less 1000s of people. I would be horrified to look back and realise that due to lax discipline, instituted to help someone like myself, meant that others did not get to reach their potential or struggled to suceed. I can’t even stand the idea that they would have had less time with the teacher. My problems were not their fault and they certainly should not have had to pay for them.

    That’s perspective and my brother had enough of it as a child to give me enough to get this point. While I would no doubt have benefitted from counselling as a teenager I don’t think that it should have been my teacher’s job to do this. Many, many children grew up with problems and if they don’t fit the victim model are dismissed. It’s time for some balance here.

    I hope Schools Week are actually going to provide it.

  2. Naureen Khalid

    I’m afraid I’m with Tarjinder on this one. I come from a country where, in many regions, children literally take life in their hands to attend school. If anyone needs excuses made for them, if anyone needs their behaviour overlooked it’s them. But that doesn’t happen. Culturally we hold teachers in great respect. We are taught that teachers are like parents. Parents would be horrified if their child misbehaved at school. No excuses must not be confused with “don’t care about the child”. Putting boundaries in place and making expectations clear is “no excuses” but, more importantly, it’s the support that child needs.

  3. MrLearnwell

    Comments miss the point surely? Author’s key point is that the success of KSA may not purely be down to the behaviour policy, and that teacher/student ratios may also play a part, along with other innovations. Her issue is with government cherry picking things that suit their schema and ignoring other factors and schools that are successful but not ‘trad’.

  4. I am deeply saddened by the comments of the previous commentators. Our education system is completely flawed and obsessed with ‘a one size fits all’ approach to learning and education. We are all different and we therefore respond to life’s challenges in different ways. Moreover, ends do not always justify means – there is always a wider narrative to consider. I have spent the best part of 10 years working with children who have been ‘at risk of’ or have been excluded from school. Some schools seem to see ‘exclusion’ or other draconian sanctions as the panaceas for poor behaviour which is wrong whatever angle you view it.

    I guess we need to stop and ask why not only our children are dropping out of school (albeit voluntarily or involuntarily) but why over 8,000 teachers left the UK last year to teach in independent schools overseas?

    In fact why don’t we start off all these debates by asking ‘why?’ – maybe we would come up with less ‘glib’ answers to the realities we are facing and start a journey towards finding some substantial answers to education’s real problems in the UK.

    Maybe when the notion of ‘humanity’ is re-inserted we may get some answers……

    A few years ago, I completed an MA is Social Justice and Education – my thesis was entitled: ‘Is building schools for the future principally about bricks and mortar?’

    My conclusion was that it takes more than buildings, curriculums and policies to provide a good education……genuine relationships are at the centre of every successful, organisation or institution. Let’s start with appreciating children and young people as human beings first….then students.

  5. Kiran Gill

    Thanks for your comments, both, but I think you’re responding more to the title than the article and slightly missing the point.

    First, let me be clear that using my sister’s story is a rhetorical device to frame my policy points and engage the reader – the main thrust is not about personal stories, they have no place in shaping policy.

    The point of my article is that the best schools in the country working with disadvantaged children do a number of things to help those children thrive and acheive. The examples in my article include high expectations, planning for continuity of care (and reducing the need for supply teachers), low student-teacher ratios, subjects where students who have low literacy can nevertheless experience success, student voice opportunities etc. (Nowhere do I suggest that schools should “bend the rules for one child over and over again… or change the entire school behaviour policy for one child”) Tracing causal mechanisms in schooling is very difficult but my article seeks to point out some common factors in case study schools who get similarly impressive results serving disadvantaged communities. I imply that attributing the causal mechanism to selective strategies that only one school employs (a traditional curriculum and a very strict behaviour policy) is not scientific.

  6. I found this a very interesting article – what KSA are doing in addition to their infliexble behaviour management systems and standards. Two observations;

    1. It doesn’t have to be either, or with their supportive and punitive systems – perhaps the success is having both.

    2. Behaviour management sanctions are probably more aimed at dissuading the borderline student and protecting the average and good students from the poor behaviour of a minority. I would agree with the author that sanctions rarely alter the behaviour of disturbed and mentally ill students – just as criminal sanctions do not deter would-be criminals. They aren’t aiming to.

  7. Anna Doyle

    My schools were generally poor, but I was raised by “no excuses” parents (especially my father) and did very well academically. However, the pressure of “no excuses” came at a huge price, with anxiety in childhood, depression by age 11, suicidal ideation by age 14 and a complete breakdown at 17. My university life was rendered almost unbearable by depression and though I emerged with a decent degree, I was utterly broken by the experience.

    The author is right to highlight the emotional and psychological side of learning, especially for children with anxiety disorders, and also to underline the need for compassion. Given my academic record, my schools were not particularly interested in other problems, and my father treated all explanation of emotional difficulties as excuses.

    Academic success means nothing without self-esteem or social skills, and I would be deeply concerned that these would be neglected in a return to “traditional” schooling and discipline. My father received a most tradtional 1950s grammar school education which took him to Cambridge and a very successful career. He has lived a results-orientated life built on a rigid code of “no excuses”. This eventually culminated in a huge mental breakdown, from which he has yet to recover. “No excuses” might be a useful tool to accomplish certain specific ends, but as a philosophy by which to live or on which to base education policy, I am afraid it may cause as many problems as it solves.