From the Editor - Not so much a boot camp, more a way of life

11th November 2011 at 00:00

A lot of teachers are pretty sceptical about the no-excuses approach to education. All that stuff about automatic penalties for minor infractions seems a bit draconian.

Detention for forgetting a pencil: how 18th century. It echoes all those intolerant ideas that are in vogue - boot camps for tearaways, military recruits to show Year 9 who is boss, tailored uniforms that would make the Swiss Guard look shabby. It's all so Sue Sylvester.

Even if sceptics accept that pupils from tough backgrounds learn little without discipline, there isn't, they point out, only one way to instil it. If good behaviour could be taught by manual we would have subcontracted the process to Ikea long ago. What works in one school won't work in another. Can you imagine trying to impose a zero-tolerance regime in Esher or Harrogate? After parents realised the school wasn't talking calories, there would be a revolt - or whatever the noun is that describes middle-class dissent. A harrumph?

Except we don't have to imagine, because the no-excuses policy is beginning to be adopted by schools in areas that are comfortable rather than disadvantaged (see pages 22-27). To comprehend why requires delving into the policy's objectives. The parade-ground tactics and unyielding disciplinary codes are only half the story, and the ones that make for arresting headlines.

As its supporters point out, the aim isn't to get pupils to toe the line for the sake of it, but to use discipline to unlock their potential. They believe you can only do that once you have cracked down on the tiniest breaches of behaviour. Behaving better becomes the easier option for pupils. It ceases to be an issue; the sole focus is learning.

The no-excuses policy doesn't just apply to children. Teachers are expected to comply, too. Pupils' difficult home lives or their poor prior performance are no excuse. Children must be helped to overcome all obstacles to achieve the next level of their development. It sounds as unrelenting as a tiger mother and as exhausting as an extreme fitness obsessive. But supporters claim that once in place, the regime becomes second nature as pupils and staff know what is expected and act accordingly.

Does it deserve to catch on? Some heads are appalled at the prospect; they would prefer not to start the day with, as one put it, "nagging". And it would be a mistake to impose it like some pagan chieftain signing up his tribe wholesale for Christianity. As one headteacher who converted from cynic to believer says, to have a chance of success a no-excuses policy has to be thought through, explained, argued and prepared for. It's not what you do but how you do it.

The clearest beneficiaries are undoubtedly disadvantaged pupils who lack structure in their lives and need it instilled in class. They have difficulty coping in a less structured school, even if their better-off peers don't. But the irony is that a policy designed for inner-city hard cases could prove surprisingly popular in the suburbs and shires.

If a no-excuses policy results in rising exam results, middle-class parents will swallow their doubts. If creativity flourishes, they are not going to object. And if a decade from now the winner of the Oscar for best actress says, "I owe my success to my school's rigorous detention policy", well ...

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