Teachwire Logo
Text Help
Text Help

Does ‘No Excuses’ Discipline Actually Work?

Ahead of an Institute of Ideas Education Forum debate later this month, Gareth Sturdy asks whether the time has come for schools to practice a 'zero tolerance' approach to pupil discipline...

  • Does ‘No Excuses’ Discipline Actually Work?

Is education in British schools doomed unless we take a zero tolerance attitude to pupil behaviour? A growing number of headteachers seem to think so.

They have begun to look for inspiration to the ‘no excuses’ model of behaviour management pioneered by the Charter Schools system in the United States. According to this code, everyday misdemeanours such as an untucked shirt, lack of a pen or talking in class, are met with strict and immediate sanctions – with no exceptions.

In some versions of the policy, pupils are expected to walk about the building in silence and only speak when they are spoken to. But does no excuses discipline really work? Or, alternatively, does ‘sparing the rod’ spoil the classroom? This is the question that will be put to a diverse range of teachers and educationalists at a forthcoming debate event held by the Institute of Ideas Education Forum in London on November 21st.

Sky-high expectations

I first began to notice this dilemma a few years ago, when I became a head of department at a posh grammar school. Being a grammar school kid myself, but having only ever taught in comprehensive schools (some of them very rough), boy did I look forward to nicely-spoken, perfectly behaved students who would do loads of work without complaint.

What I found were students with revision guides out on the desk in every lesson, who would ask me why we were learning such-and-such when it wasn’t in the exam syllabus. A large number of these pupils weren’t just mild-mannered – they were quiescent, a bit stilted, uncomfortable with expressing themselves and challenging others.

They seemed to have no opinions, or at least kept them extremely well hidden, despite my best attempts to unleash their personalities. Instead of a cathedral of knowledge, I had stumbled into a well-ordered exam factory.

I’ve moved on since then, and part of my job now entails visiting schools across East London, helping them to inspire their pupils with physics. Quite a few of them are new and have been set up within the last few years explicitly to teach a highly knowledge-rich curriculum, where subjects like Latin, classics and separate sciences are studied from Year 7. It’s an interesting combination – the type of academic lessons you’d find in a selective school, but with a typical comprehensive school intake.

I’m now back to teaching children who are quite the opposite of those grammar school pupils. They’re full of energy and chutzpah, outspoken and uncompromising. Colleagues often remark that many of them have few boundaries, or appear to have a deep-rooted sense of entitlement.

Watching some of these lively youngsters kick up and cause a scene, instead getting to grips with nuclear physics or a Latin declension, has forced me to consider some deep questions. Does an academic education require certain scholarly behaviours before it can really get going? Do you need sky-high expectations of behaviour before you can achieve sky-high expectations of learning?

A reactionary education?

I believe the issue at the heart of this is a confrontation between identity and knowledge. Sociologist Michael Young, in books such as Knowledge and the Future School, makes the point that the kind of knowledge children acquire in school is useful – powerful, even – because it is outside their normal experience. You will never know the significance of the English Civil War, or how many electrons there are in an Oxygen atom by reflecting on life in your street or how you feel about people you know.

But Young goes on to say that knowledge is also disruptive to identity. It pushes you to question what you know, put your existing sense of the world to the test and forces you ask who you really are. In the schools in which I work, it’s been my experience that children who have a strong sense of identity find academic work a big imposition, often opting out and encouraging their mates to do the same. What should we do about them?

The solution at Michaela Community School in Brent is to run a seven-day Boot Camp for new pupils and from then on operate a zero tolerance policy for poor behaviour. The aim is to eliminate unpleasant confrontations between staff and students, and facilitate an atmosphere in which teachers are free to teach.

The same standards are applied to parents as well as pupils. Earlier this year, the school’s head, Katharine Birbalsingh was criticised in the press for allegedly putting a child in lunch isolation for their parent’s failure to pay food costs. Michaela’s critics argue that children walking about in silence is not natural. This type of education is reactionary and merely stifles pupils, they say.  Yet the school has previously been praised by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and a host of others for the incredible academic achievement of its pupils.

It seems to me that today’s schools are at a very important crossroads. The helpful insight from the child-centred progressivism of the 1970s and 80s is that education involves relationships, and that developing children have complex needs and drives.
Yet at the same time, the inclusion of these principles in the curriculum has hollowed out its knowledge content in favour of ‘skills’ and ‘feelings’, and in part helped to create an entitled generation.

How schools go forward with the best of both worlds is a vital question – and perhaps zero tolerance is the answer. Come along to the debate on November 21st and tell us what you think.

Gareth Sturdy is a physics teacher working in East London and a committee member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum; follow him at @stickyphysics

The debate event ‘No excuses’ discipline: does sparing the rod spoil the classroom?’ takes place at 7pm on Monday 21st November at the Institute of Ideas Education Forum, Art Workers Guild, 6 Queen Street, London. Further details can be found here; to book a place, email education@instituteofideas.com

Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Make sure your assessment is effective with these expert insights.

Find out more here >