There is growing interest in a new approach to behaviour in schools – ‘no-excuses discipline’. The idea can be traced back to the 1990s and the US charter-school movement. Since then, a number of charter schools have embraced a zero-tolerance approach to pupil behaviour. This means that all children, whatever their background, must follow every school rule to the letter.
For example, any child with their shirt untucked, or who fails to bring a pen to class, will receive a detention or an equivalent punishment. In order to succeed, this approach, it is said, requires all teachers to raise their expectations, and to believe that poverty is no longer an acceptable excuse for poor educational standards.
The thinking behind no-excuses discipline is that more serious misbehaviour can be avoided by strict policing of misdemeanours. ‘We believe that, like crime, poor behaviour in a school is also contagious; it starts with minor details and spreads through both people and the environment like an epidemic’, explains a charter-school in Fresno, California. Some schools take this approach very seriously. For example, it is not uncommon, in schools that follow this method, to find children walking along corridors in single file and in perfect silence, or to find that conversation is banned at break or lunchtime. In order for this model to succeed, all teachers must be willing to consistently implement a rigid behaviour-management system. It is beginning to be tried in some UK schools.
This method certainly sounds refreshing. In some schools, behaviour is sub-standard because child-centred approaches mean that teachers defer their authority to children. There are two prominent examples of this denigration of authority in British schools. First, is the idea of the ‘student voice’, which entails giving children more say over all sorts of aspects of how a school is run, including which teachers should be hired and fired. Second, is the steady drift towards making the curriculum relevant to children (as if knowledge of art, literature and history were irrelevant to children). In practice, this means dumbing down the curriculum to make content directly related to the needs of children and society. For example: maths is useful, science is good for healthy living and geography promotes ethical consumption.
The appeal of no-excuses discipline is surely that it seeks to tackle diminishing adult authority in schools. Isn’t it high time that teachers stopped putting up with poor behaviour and low standards and started to take control? It is certainly admirable that no-excuses schools believe that children can change, and that, whatever their background, all children are capable of following the rules and achieving educational success. Such an approach stands in stark contrast to a culture of tired excuses for poor behaviour, and a low standard of education, which pervades some schools.