Stick with me here but there are few phrases that I find more infuriating than, “No Excuses.” Well, I suppose that, “our sort of kids,” is just as annoying. Both because they seem to be used to give excuses to the ones I think shouldn’t be able to glibly offer them. Adults.
When discussing results with the head of department at a school in town a couple of years ago I was told that the previous year (who had what made what would be regarded by even the most generous of assessors as shocking levels of progress) had done well, “for Yarmouth kids.” As a teacher who had spent nearly two decades in coastal towns with low aspiration I could almost see where this perspective had come from, but as a “Yarmouth kid” I offered to go and get my certificates and show just what we could achieve. Is it any wonder that the community has low aspirations when those that should be raising them have decided to settle for mediocrity on behalf of the children?
Equally if the curriculum we offer is designed to meet the level that we perceive children to be capable of now, or in the past, rather than what we believe they can truly achieve given the very best teaching then we are lowering aspiration and expectations for those who we should be pushing on. The accusation lazily thrown around of ‘dumbing down’ when schools seek to make sure that a curriculum meets the needs of its students can easily become justified if we are actually offering qualifications we feel students can achieve without being pushed, supported and taught to the very best of our ability. Are we looking at what they truly need or simply the lowest common denominator and using low starting points or poor educational histories to give ourselves excuses based on a less than complimentary view of, “our sort of kids.”
And yet it’s not good enough to challenge these perceptions, self or otherwise, by simply storming in with a no prisoners taken, no holds barred approach and expecting that we can just expect students, families and communities to pull up their boot straps stop making excuses and bloody well get sorted.
“No Excuses” seems to me to have been taken up as a rallying call by people with the very best of intentions but an equal dose of misunderstanding and poor application. A child who can’t manage to carry an idea with them for more than five minutes without the need to be refocused isn’t providing excuses when they drift or ask questions after the first fifteen minutes of thirty minute teacher exposition. A child who has arrived in the country sixth months ago who doesn’t know the alphabet in English so needs to ask you to write things out for them and takes longer than you’d ideally want to keep up isn’t simply using this as an excuse. A twelve year old who has just lost a parent and can’t manage to maintain focus throughout the day as a result isn’t providing excuses. What they all have is barriers. Obstacles to learning that need to be overcome.
And I do stress the idea that they need to be, and should be overcome. In the increasingly polarised educational world that we find ourselves in – the most toxic and damaging feature to have come to the fore in recent years – we find ourselves either uncaring and disinterested in the differing needs of young people, or soft hearted liberals willing to throw away education and the future of those in our care because we are too busy handing them a tissue and excusing them from science. I don’t think people are simply at either of these lazily characterised extremes – or at least I hope not. You would be neglectful if you didn’t want students to have academic success, to learn stuff during their time in school, to enable them to have the widest opportunity and life chances and choices by the time they leave. Equally, you’d have to be a pretty grim person not to see that each student in your care has their own wonderfully complex personality and not find joy in working with them and seeing these individuals bloom and engage in their education and the myriad experiences that school and life can provide.
I have no idea why we seem to look for ways to set ourselves against each other but it seems to have become the norm. Maybe insecurities in the profession have made us unable to look for ways to support and collaborate and instead see threat and attack everywhere. Ros McMullen has done an excellent job of looking at these contradictions and what we miss by throwing ourselves so heartily into the disagreements and discord created by them here. Ros is far more succinct than I could ever hope to be so, while I’ll leave you to read her rather then explore more here, I do wonder whether or not these rows are a factor in people looking at teaching and deciding it’s not for them, or others deciding to leave. It’s definitely something I’ve found to be more negative and frustrating than any curriculum change, accountability measure or student behaviour.
So what about these excuses then?
The notion of “No Excuses” first came into my world through a principal at a primary school. It was being used across a range of audiences and causing a fair bit of upset and offence in most cases. Parents weren’t used to being challenged, students thought it was unfair as they couldn’t hide behind anything and staff thought it was, well, they took the same stance as the students in a number of cases!
The phrase had come in this case from Future Leaders and it was Heath Monk, formerly the CEO of the group that made me look at it in a very different way when he said how the intention behind “No Excuses” was that it was applied far more to teachers and other adults than children. It was our excuses, the, “our sort of kids,’ excuses and, “what do you expect,” get out clauses that were intended to be challenged. This wasn’t a stick to beat children with and let everyone else off.
So what would it mean if we were to look at things from this perspective? Could we actually agree that there should be no excuses? No excuse for children from whatever background, with whatever learning or behavioural difficulty and with whatever events in their lives to fail to achieve just as much as anyone else. No excuse given by us for them not succeeding. That I can get behind.
And as someone who has here and on other occasions bemoaned polarisation it would be well within your rights to charge me at this point with taking the responsibility for all of this and laying it at the staffroom door and not the family home or child’s bedroom. To make me one of those leftie liberals allowing anarchy to reign and kids to do what they like while berating the poor teachers for having the audacity to have expectations of children and just wanting to teach them. But of course it’s not that simple.
If we see what are deemed excuses in some quarters as barriers and obstacles to be removed or overcome then we need to realise that everyone has to be part of the team that removes these. If we are going to genuinely claim that we have the interests of the student at heart and believe that there is more to education than a simple transmission of knowledge from one learned vessel to an empty one then we also need to acknowledge that students can’t have it all done for them. They need to step up and employ strategies to be able to overcome the barriers and not hide behind them, or be allowed to. We need to provide the ladder.
So maybe this is something that we can unify on. Rather than “No Excuses” being a way to deny that some students need different things from us or to beat staff with when they are working with those more challenging students lets see it as a challenge to us all. What are the barriers and obstacles that can be used as excuses by all of us – schools, parents and students? What needs to be done to make sure that these don’t just become excuses to hide behind? And what do each of the three parts of a successful education triad need to do to make sure that they are swept aside and our children have the greatest chances to succeed?
Even ones from Yarmouth!