Behaviour: We must say no to ‘no excuses’

Written by: Matt Ward | Published:
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The ‘no excuses’, zero tolerance approach to behaviour and discipline is shown to be a failed model and should now be thrown out by schools – for good – says Matt Ward

There is a growing trend in UK schools towards a “no excuses” style of behaviour management that disturbs me. It is an approach that has been imported from the US’s zero tolerance system.

“Zero tolerance” refers to behaviour management policies that seek to punish all offences severely, no matter how minor. Growing out of the gun violence tragedies in US schools in the early 1990s, any perceived threat-making by students resulted in automatic and permanent expulsions.

Before long, zero tolerance was casting its net further afield, and came to involve severe reactions to minor as well as major incidents, treating both with equal severity so as to “send a message” to any potential violators. But it has proved to be a huge over-reaction.

The National Center for Education Statistics in America concluded in 1998 that there was no statistical basis at all for such a wide roll-out of zero tolerance. It found that schools with no reported crime were less likely to have a zero tolerance policy than schools with incidents of serious crime. And even after schools with zero tolerance policies had implemented them for more than four years, they were still less safe than schools without such policies.

Now, after almost 30 years, many school districts are fleeing from it for one simple reason: zero tolerance just does not work.

Although widely acknowledged to have an immediate impact upon behaviour in the short-term, zero tolerance’s long-term impact was never sustained, with the long-term effects overwhelmingly negative for students and schools.

In 2013, a report published by the VERA Institute of Justice noted that of the students who entered a zero tolerance environment in 2000, 2001 and 2002, 60 per cent were suspended by the conclusion of middle or high school, especially so if they were SEND or ethnic minority students. It concluded: “Zero tolerance policies are beneficial for neither teachers nor students. We need alternatives that keep kids safely in school.”

Thus we arrive in the politically charged climate of Britain in 2019, and the ever-growing and more popular “no excuses” method of behaviour management – zero tolerance by another name.

It has led to the recent scandals like “flattening the grass” – “grass” being the students that are then “flattened” by the teacher. Often this is led by a group of senior leaders, entirely randomly and often very publicly, and all to “send a message” to any potential future offenders (Tes, 2019).

The major problem associated with “no excuses” as it is being employed in some UK schools today is the sheer volume of misbehaviours it encompasses, and therefore the huge number of students it has a negative impact upon.

As serious incidents of violence in UK schools are actually very rare, it means that a huge amount of minor disruption and low-level behaviour is caught in the “no excuses” net – and therefore students end up excluded not for threatening school safety but instead for disrespect, disobedience or persistent defiance.

“No excuses” behaviour policies do not work. They did not work in the US, they will not work in the UK.

What does work, however, is rigorously applied discipline structures. What does work is employing behaviour systems that are based on a sense of justice and individual worth, where individual issues are judged according to their merits, not a one-size-fits-all style of punishment for any infraction.

What definitely works is the cultivation of healthy positive relationships between students and teachers that are backed up by consistent positive reinforcement. That is what has most impact on a child’s behavioural development.

The reason for this is that much student misbehaviour is often rooted in deep-seated socio-economic, family-related issues. Merely punishing the child regularly could not possibly begin to resolve these issues.

Children who are most likely to develop disruptive types of behaviour later in their academic life are often weak academically with poor social skills very early in their school lives. These deficits cause them later on to become increasingly alienated, which leads them to become less interested in school.

Many then actively begin seeking out the company of their more anti-social peers. Many families then fail or are unable to effectively monitor their children’s whereabouts or their friendship groups. “No excuses” does not address any of these fundamentals problems.

It is a great paradox today that many schools are throwing everything at Pupil Premium students to try to get them to succeed, but the same schools are then throwing these pupils out when they fail behaviourally.

“No excuses” is about punishment when what works with alienated students is relationships. The greatest steps forward with difficult students are often found in the grey areas of behaviour management. Yet “no excuses” wipes away this flexibility and almost guarantees the destruction of the student-teacher relationship.

Some schools have lost sight of what matters in pastoral leadership; the weight of punishment alone will never stop problematic students from misbehaving. Such a view is naïve at best, dangerous at worst.

I am often asked what the single most effective method of classroom management is. My answer is always the same: compassion. There is simply nothing that will come close to the long-term impact that compassion will have on a difficult, disaffected child. Compassion, the polar opposite of “no excuses” in attitude and tone, is the gateway for developing empathy with a disaffected student. It promotes trust and encourages forgiveness, and with that comes responsibility. Are these not the exact qualities we are looking to develop in our students?

Compassion is interested in the needs of a student, not just in the punishment that you can administer to them. We would never treat our own children like this, so why do some schools think it okay to do so with somebody else’s? There is simply no excuse any more for “no excuses” discipline. It needs to end. But I suspect it will not, not for quite some time to come.

Further information

  • Violence and discipline problems in US public schools: 1996-97, National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education, March 1998: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/98030.pdf
  • A generation later: What we’ve learned about zero tolerance in schools, VERA Institute of Justice, December 2013: http://bit.ly/2Dg2AfH
  • More whistleblowers report fear and aggression at ‘flattening the grass’ academy chains, Tes, February 2019: http://bit.ly/2IBihlc


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