More than ties, shoes and hair

11th November 2011 at 00:00
The `no excuses' approach is often caricatured as a soulless imposition of petty rules on inner-city children. But, as William Stewart reports, that is only half the story - and it's catching on elsewhere

Drew Duncan looks out over the atrium of Mossley Hollins High. Two storeys below, Year 11 are forming into neat lines in complete silence. But something is wrong.

Mr Duncan, the head, has spotted a pupil carrying his jacket instead of wearing it. He looks at the boy and makes a small gesture. Not a word is spoken. But the jacket is put on.

The pupils file into assembly and sit down without fuss, as staff make final uniform checks. "Good morning," says a teacher. "Good morning," answer teenagers in unison.

This impressive demonstration of collective compliance is the result of a strict "no excuses" approach to discipline that has led to Mr Duncan being accused of running his school, in Greater Manchester, like a prison.

Infractions as minor as coming to school without a pencil result in an immediate, automatic, after-school detention. It is the same for all of the clear, simple rules covering classroom behaviour, uniform, punctuality and bringing the right equipment to class. They apply to all pupils in all circumstances; all staff enforce them and no exceptions are made.

Mossley Hollins is not alone. The secondary is part of a movement that is slowly, without fanfare, gaining ground in England's school system. Every now and then another example surfaces in the media. In September, it was Basildon Academy, Essex, where the head really did once teach in a prison. Parents had been despairing of graffiti-covered walls and staff who could not cope with pupils who would nip out of lessons for a cigarette. Then along came Dr Rory Fox, once of HMP Edmunds Hill, who on his first day, according to the Daily Mail, sent home 109 pupils for not wearing exactly the right uniform.

Most famous of all is Mossbourne Academy, serving riot-blighted estates in Hackney, east London, which this year saw seven pupils progress to Cambridge University. Sir Michael Wilshaw has partially attributed his success as head to a similar zero-tolerance behaviour policy. He once kept a boy out of mainstream classes for a week for wearing black suede, rather than leather, shoes.

Getting a grip on discipline has long been seen as the first step on the way to achieving success in schools serving the most disadvantaged areas. But the examples above represent much more than a simple "get tough" attitude. They share a coherent and specific approach to all aspects of running a school.

There is a new vigour and lack of compromise to making rules and cracking down on those who break them. And the policy is being pursued in growing numbers of state schools. Behind this single-mindedness is an evangelical belief that it can make a real difference to the achievements of the most disadvantaged pupils. And its proponents in this country are being inspired by the same small group of advocates.

Mr Duncan was, like many, converted to the cause when he attended a course run by Future Leaders, the publicly funded scheme that trains qualified teachers to lead secondaries in deprived areas. He was there in summer 2008, as a course mentor rather than a participant, but he ended up completely changing his approach to school leadership. During that fortnight he heard from senior staff at Mossbourne Academy and the likes of Jay Altman, a US charter school pioneer who preceded Sir Michael Wilshaw as education director at the Ark Schools academy chain and co- founded Future Leaders.

They explained how the key to transforming educational prospects in the toughest urban areas was to "sweat the small stuff". In other words, to introduce the order needed for pupils to reach their full potential, you must introduce a coherent set of rules and clamp down immediately and hard on the tiniest breach. Unsurprisingly for a self-confessed "soft left- winger", Mr Duncan, who prided himself on being "caring", did not always find this hard line easy to swallow.

"At its most extreme, children might comply," he worried. "But would they a) be happy and b) be learning how to make decisions and the right choices in later life when this disciplined environment was no longer there?"

The head spent so much time openly challenging the assumptions on the course that at one stage he had to be reminded he was supposed to be there as a mentor.

Despite his apparent reservations, a lot of what Mr Duncan heard chimed with his instincts. He was tiring of his school's existing "huge range of rules, regulations and approaches" that relied on "exhaustive efforts and force of personality, charisma and constant reminders" to work. "I was beginning to come round to the notion that there must be a better and easier way."

At his most oppositional, Mr Duncan feared Future Leaders was "a cult". But by the end of the fortnight he was a fully paid-up member. Others like Dr Fox, now a Daily Mail hero for his efforts at Basildon Academy, had already joined. And their ranks swell every year as another cohort of 70 or so teachers complete the programme.

There are already 15 Future Leaders in headships and hundreds more working as leaders in "challenging" schools. The scheme is only five years old and enjoys cross-party support, so the influence of its "no excuses" approach to school management can only grow.

In many ways it is pushing at an open door. Today's Conservative education ministers were arguing that schools, particularly those in "difficult areas", should set "clear boundaries" four years ago, while still in opposition. Ofsted, meanwhile, has already backed "zero tolerance" and "non-negotiable" behaviour policies, and with Sir Michael Wilshaw about to be installed as the next chief inspector, the watchdog's support for the approach is likely to strengthen.

Not everyone sees this as a good thing. Teacher Francis Gilbert, from the Local Schools Network, fears that some schools are instituting "draconian" sanctions that "create an atmosphere of fear". Melissa Benn, co-founder of the network set up to "promote local state schools", sees zero tolerance as "very unappealing" and worries it could compromise the kind of "open atmosphere that allows for risk and failure, and creative thinking".

So what are the implications for England's state schools as this model starts to sweep all before it? If these "draconian" measures designed for extreme, disadvantaged circumstances spread to the mainstream, will they not just make school unpleasant for pupils who would have done well anyway?

And if they do not, is it healthy to have an educational apartheid with a regime that critics liken to a boot camp for little Jordan and a relaxed, creative, atmosphere for privileged Jasper in his leafy suburb?

Conflict and nagging

Some schools remain unconvinced by the whole idea, with its emphasis on strict codes of behaviour and dress. Anthony Gell School has not had a compulsory uniform for decades. And when David Baker took over as head of the Derbyshire comprehensive six years ago, he decided, after a consultation with parents and pupils, to stick with the policy, despite the changing national mood.

"I don't believe it is linked to discipline," he explains. "I don't see what it has got to do with that. There are far better ways to start the day than with conflict, with nagging. I know how unusual we are, but I would rather teachers were talking to pupils about work than whether their tie is straight."

Mr Baker, whose school serves Wirksworth, a rural town of just 9,000, understands that uniforms can engender loyalty, and the logic of them helping to set boundaries for pupils with chaotic lives from disadvantaged homes. But, asked about the idea of keeping a pupil off school for several days for having the wrong type of shoes, he laughs out loud. "Really?" he snorts. "I do not see the educational benefit of getting into that sort of situation."

It would, though, be doing a disservice to the zero-tolerance approach to suggest it is just about uniform. It goes much deeper than that.

The main origins of the movement can be traced back to US charter schools. The distinctive, shared approach to pedagogy and discipline that emerged among some of these state-funded, independently run schools - typically serving disadvantaged urban areas - started to be described by American commentators as the "no excuses" model (see box, right). The same phrase has been picked up by the Future Leaders scheme and it is these "no excuses" charter schools that provide its main inspiration.

The crucial point to understand is that "no excuses" does not just apply to pupils and their behaviour and work rate. This is not simply a way of getting difficult children to toe the line so that teachers can have an easier time. It applies to staff as well.

The aim at the heart of it is to achieve a "100 per cent school" - where everyone achieves the qualifications they need to progress to the next level, be it five good GCSEs or the exams required to get to university.

If only half of pupils manage it, it is seen as failure. It is the teachers' responsibility to get every pupil to fulfil their true potential, with no excuses. Difficult home lives or unsupportive parents cannot be seen as reasons for a child not to achieve, they are simply obstacles that the school must work harder to help the pupil overcome.

And it was this kind of uncompromising thinking that hooked Mr Duncan. "The fundamental issue was that, even though this school was doing well and getting better, its least advantaged children were not," he remembers. "The children who needed us most were getting us least. The children with the least structured lives were the children who didn't cope in an unstructured school."

So he set about creating that structure with a simple set of rules for Mossley Hollins. Known as "NUHOPE", it means: No answering back; Uniform - not nearly perfect but perfect; Homework - completed on time to a good standard; On-task - focused learning in lessons; Punctual - self explanatory; and Equipment - school bag with correct books and pencil case containing a minimum of pen, pencil, ruler and rubber.

Breaking any of the rules in any way would immediately result in an after- school NUHOPE detention on the same day, even if it was just for having a top button undone.

John Denton, chair of governors, initially viewed the idea as "oppressive" and "draconian".

"I thought it was awful," he says. "I hate control structures that are just there because somebody thinks they should be there. I feared there would be rebellion, if I'm really honest."

And there was rebellion. Mr Duncan decided to introduce his new regime as quickly as possible and, he now admits, without enough consultation. The summer before, NUHOPE posters were put up on every wall. That holiday, the head received an urgent call from the caretaker. One of the school's best teachers, a head of faculty, "had gone berserk" and was furiously ripping the posters down. He was not the only teacher with doubts.

So why would a head introduce a system almost guaranteed to plunge previously well-behaved pupils into a school's punishment regime? Does this kind of approach not risk, as Mr Gilbert warns, creating an "atmosphere of fear"? Should kids not be allowed to be kids?

Mr Duncan has thought hard about this. "When you dig deeper, I think are two definitions to letting kids be kids," he says carefully. "One is kids will be naughty, therefore accept it. The other is kids are free spirits, let them explore the world.

"In terms of the first one, we all know that whenever you ask children to put in their own discipline codes they are far more severe than anything imposed by a responsible head. Because kids do not want to be naughty: kids want structure, kids want routine. This system allows kids to be kids.

"The second definition is far more nuanced. But I would argue you can be quiet and creative. Some of the most creative people in the world have had highly structured and well disciplined, focused teaching and learning. If you look at the education of some of the most famous rock stars, comedians, musicians and artists, it is often at a public school and very disciplined."

But you could equally cite those like Lily Allen, Simon Cadwell, John Wyndham, Minnie Driver and Daniel Day-Lewis, famous through their creativity, who received a very different type of public school education. They are among the illustrious alumni of Bedales, a pound;30,000-a-year school that represents the complete antithesis of the approach that Mr Duncan, Sir Michael Wilshaw and many other heads are starting to introduce to the state sector. Pupils are on first-name terms with all staff including the head, Keith Budge. There is no uniform and the school goes out of its way not to impose unnecessary rules.

"For quite a long time the only really strong guiding principle at Bedales was that you shouldn't do anything that causes needless harm to others, and to an extent we abide by that principle of simplicity and consideration now," Mr Budge explains. "It is as in the case in a good family - that there are certain ways of going about family life that work to everyone's benefit and that parents shouldn't have arbitrary or petty rules just for the sake of it."

He would never dream of telling other heads how to run their schools, but adds: "There is a danger that students would feel alienated from their experience of education and that teachers actually aren't terribly interested in them as people and learners if (they) appear to be much more interested in how they look than how they behave."

Concerns are starting to emerge about the "no excuses" approach in America, where it was pioneered. The fear is not so much that it does not work, but that it might be segregating school populations by turning off the middle classes with its uncompromising approach.

Community Roots, a primary-aged charter school in Brooklyn, New York City, has become hugely popular by offering a completely different, "progressive" alternative to "no excuses" schools (see box, left).

It is exactly the kind of approach that a significant proportion of parents at Mossley Hollins High would be likely to lap up. Because the secondary is not, in fact, an inner-city sink school, coping with an unfair share of the most disadvantaged pupils.

Its stunning new building is set in the spectacular south Pennine hills, overlooking Mossley, a small, close-knit former mill town, now home to a growing band of affluent Manchester commuters. Mossley Hollins is its only secondary and takes everyone from children from the local council estate to the offspring of rich, converted-barn dwellers.

This is a true comprehensive and, by introducing "no excuses" here, Mr Duncan has taken the model into the mainstream. But it has not been easy.

The head estimates that between 50-60 per cent of his parents are middle class and among them are those for whom the zero-tolerance approach went against their most deeply held liberal beliefs. "They are the people for whom community school means community," says Mr Duncan. "The same people who would be against academies.

"Incredibly lovely people, they will form your governing bodies for you, they will attend the parents' evenings. They will say: `Mossley Hollins High is not a really good school but it will be even worse if our children leave. Our children have to learn to mix with children from all backgrounds.' Those kinds of parents - delightful in every way - questioned it."

Turning point

The head spent two or three "extreme" months personally taking calls from them, explaining what he had done.

"I was radically changing routines and protocols in a school where parents had already chosen the school because of what it used to do," he says. "At one point I thought this is the worst decision we have ever made. The bit that was horrible was that parents of children who had never been any problem were then receiving negative feedback about their children.

"Detention was seen as being such a big thing. They were flying down in their cars, dropping off this little book for a kid because four lessons later they knew what would happen."

"A dad said: `What are you doing? Your school is like a prison'." He was invited in and shown round by a Year 7 girl. The visit was a turning point.

"It was just one of those days when the place was alive with drama, music and performance and happy children," recalls Mr Duncan. "He said: `Sorry, I was wrong, I can see what you are trying to do'."

And that, as the head ruefully notes, is the side of the "no excuses" approach that often goes unreported. Journalists love the get-tough, zero- tolerance story, but are less interested in the warmer side of the regime and its ultimate goal of better education.

An anonymous survey conducted a year after NUHOPE was introduced tells its own story. A perfect 100 per cent of staff were in favour and, like reformed smokers, it was those who had been most sceptical who became the biggest supporters. Responses were received from parents of all pupils and 98 per cent backed the idea.

Some say parenting has become easier as a result of the regime and Mr Duncan believes the liberal middle classes can now see how the scheme is helping the least advantaged pupils. But the most startling result of all was backing from 77 per cent of pupils who experienced NUHOPE.

"That is, 77 per cent of turkeys were voting for Christmas," points out Mr Duncan. "They were voting for same-night detentions for not having a rubber, for the top button being undone on your shirt."

The remaining 23 per cent were asked why they had not voted for it and revealed they were not against the idea in principle. But they felt that if punishments were to be automatic then so should the parallel system of material rewards and praise for consistent good behaviour - a point since addressed.

The thing that strikes you most when you visit schools like Mossbourne Academy or Mossley Hollins is just how quiet and calm everyone is. No one is shouting, because they don't have to. But they do not feel like cold authoritarian regimes. The relentless imposition of sanctions actually has the opposite effect. As we tour Mossley Hollins, Mr Duncan goes to speak to a Year 7 boy who is working on his own for having broken a NUHOPE rule. The head has no need to admonish the boy, who has already received his punishment. Instead he tells him not to worry and quite gently ensures he understands the rationale behind it.

The head sees the detentions as "a little slap across the puppy's nose". "It's a corrective. We give them numeracy and literacy work when they are in that room. It doesn't suddenly become all punitive and draconian."

By creating so much hassle for any pupil who steps out of line, and providing positive incentives, behaving actually becomes the easier option. And when discipline is removed as an issue, everyone is free to get on with the main business of teaching and learning, leaving schools that buzz with energy and creativity, and exam results that beat all expectations.

It is hard not to walk away from these schools without thinking that you have seen the future and it works. But as Mr Duncan himself argues, that does not mean the solution is to quickly roll out the model everywhere.

"It is not enough to say: `Hey! That works, let's do it'," he says. "It has to be severely tested in the context of the school and should be used carefully. You can't just impose it."

The one advantage that Mossbourne and Mossley Hollins have both enjoyed is outstanding leadership. And surely without that a "no excuses" approach would flounder?

Mr Duncan dodges the question by arguing it is the approach itself that has moved his leadership from "mediocre to good" (actually, Ofsted says "inspirational"). But without his persuasiveness there is no way he could have taken everyone with him and achieved the consistency that is essential for the policy to work.

He has seen another, unnamed school take the "no excuses" approach its leaders had seen at Mossley Hollins and try to introduce it half a term later, with little preparation. "I don't think it has worked particularly well," Mr Duncan confides. "Because it is not what you do. It is how you do it and how you involve other people in trying to understand what you are trying to achieve."

The "no excuses" model may prove easier to spread than previous fashionable approaches because its discipline systems offer inherent support to weaker teachers. But to assume that it is simply the theory behind the approach that makes it work in schools would be a mistake.

When you talk to Mr Duncan and Allison Keil, joint head at Community Roots, what shines out is not the obvious differences in their educational philosophies, but the things they have in common: their sense of vision, their use of data in monitoring individual pupil progress, and their attention to detail and passion for what happens in their schools.

As Ms Keil puts it: "We have very high behavioural and academic expectations. We just get to them in a different way."


Typical features of a "no-excuses" US charter school are:

High behavioural and academic expectations for all pupils.

Strict, simple and clear rules on behaviour, and sanctions applied consistently and without exception.

Emphasis on ensuring essential numeracy and literacy skills are achieved.

More lesson time through extended school days, and summer, weekend and after-school sessions.

A focus on getting every pupil to university.

Effort to build a strong school culture with embedded systems and routines.

A policy of hiring good, motivated, energetic - often young - teachers.

A tendency to serve urban, socially disadvantaged areas.

A tendency to be run by not-for-profit operators like the Knowledge is Power Program.


Last year, Community Roots, according to the New York Times, became the fifth most sought after charter school in the city in terms of parental demand.

The primary uses a child-centred, project-based, integrated approach to the curriculum and teaching - a world away from the commonly understood charter school norm.

And according to the school's co-founder and co-head, Allison Keil, it leads naturally into a very different stance from "no excuses" on discipline.

"We have a code of conduct for big discipline problems," she says. "But our basic approach doesn't come from the standpoint that if a child calls out, they need to be disciplined.

"We would look at the reasons the child was calling out and see if there was something we could be doing about it."

There is no uniform and, just as there is no rigid system of disciplinary sanctions, there are no corresponding rewards or vouchers for good behaviour.

Ms Keil does not criticise the "no excuses" model, saying it works "incredibly well". But she says her model means children are "brought into learning to learn and are not fearful of a consequence.

"When you are operating out of fear of something bad happening, I am not sure that children get to the depth of learning that happens here."

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