No excuses: who is taking responsibility?

From where I’m reading, this week’s twitter discussions seem to have reached the consensus that while there may be ‘no excuses’ for poor behaviour in schools, there may be reasons.

Before proceeding, I will first state my own, hopefully uncontroversial, opinion that appropriate behaviour in schools must exist before learning can take place, that all schools need a clear, strong whole school behaviour policy with firm but fair boundaries in which teachers are supported by SLT, and that a nurturing pastoral system must exist to support the behavioural code.

What principally concerns me, however, is the subtle transference of some of the more negative aspects of Gove’s and now Morgan’s ‘rhetoric of rigour’ and the osmotic absorption of this negativity by some in the teaching profession.  ‘No excuses’ to me implies a negative assumption that you will be lied to by those intending to shirk responsibility. It appeals as a soundbite or slogan, sounding powerful and no-nonsense, but an equally brief slogan of ‘Take responsibility’, for example, implies instead a positive expectation, an implication that students have the desire and capability to step up to expectations of mature behaviour. An English teacher’s pedantry it may be, but for me, every word signals and models our expectations. Positive expectation starts with every phrase, for example ‘Walk, please.’ instead of ‘Don’t run.’ Negative expectation is continually embedded in the language of politicians and the media from the implied to the overt, whether ‘benefit scroungers’, ‘career women’ or ‘migrant cockroaches’.  It is pervasive, insidious and dangerous, and we need to remain alert to its persuasive power.

Negativity is absorbed incrementally, and the past years of Coalition government have subjected teachers to a barrage of negative rhetoric.  I believe Gove’s curriculum reforms, his adherence to Matthew Arnold’s ‘the best which has been thought and said’ and high standards for spelling, punctuation and grammar will probably be judged positively in the long run. However, his real skill was a political one: to use negative rhetoric to shift responsibility onto teachers, schools and students whilst removing by the back door many of the support systems we need to make his dream of equality of achievement for all a reality.  Nicky Morgan’s dawn attack on ‘coasting schools’ this morning again highlights what Tom Sherrington has called the ‘idiotic gun to head rhetoric’ which blames schools for problems which the government has helped to create.

Teachers are mostly driven by a service ethos: it has been noticeable to me since joining the profession (after 12 years working in television production) how many have a religious background.  This sense of individual responsibility teachers have for each and every student they teach, their desire to give back to society and help others, is genuine, heartfelt and powerful. And it has been shamelessly exploited by the political rhetoric of a ‘no excuses’ culture. No child must fail. All children must have equality of opportunity. Which teacher would disagree? Therefore, like Boxer in Animal Farm we continue working ever harder, almost proudly demonstrating our Stakhanovite work ethic in the hopes of achieving the dream. We absorb the message: ‘No excuses’.

But there are reasons. The circumstances into which students are born. Welfare cuts with very real physical, financial and emotional impact. The loss of Sure Start and the EMA, the raising of university tuition fees, the extension of middle class privilege via free schools and grammar schools, have all hit students’ ability to achieve equality, and the ability of schools to help them.

Schools are continually having to assume more and more of the role of parents and/or social services:

  1. Schools as Mini Welfare States –
  2. Promoting British values –
  3. Responsible for Character Education –
  4. Teeth Brushing as well? Hey, why not…?

What about the pupil premium?  A worthy intention, seemingly clearly ring-fenced to help the most disadvantaged, yet again, smoke and mirrors worthy of the Wizard of Oz (well actually he was a bit rubbish at hiding what he was up to, so let’s hope we see through it, as did Dorothy and pals). I’m no policy expert and am not responsible for pupil premium cash at our school, but on the website it appears the government offers:

  • £1,300 for pupils in reception year to year 6
  • £935 for pupils in year 7 to year 11

Schools also receive £1,900 for each pupil who has left local-authority care

So say £1,000 a year so £12,000 over a school lifetime for the most disadvantaged. Leaving aside the fact that the most troubled or challenged students may not necessarily be those with the least money, how can this amount of funding hope to create equality of opportunity? The equivalent of the fees for a half-term at Eton (£11,478). An amount which would be seen as a derisory bonus for any self-respecting banker (if there are any!).

Surely behind The Wizard of Gove et Morgan’s curtain are the true costs of ‘closing the gap’ as it is so neatly put, for these students. What does it really cost?  Obviously, it depends on the individual student, and sometimes the students with the most need will not be on that list, and sometimes they will, but the true cost of professional help, based on individual needs of the child, to redress the balance might come from the list below:

  • Cheapest teacher for a year £22, 023 (but what these students really need is of course the most experienced teachers)
  • Cheapest social worker for a year around £25,000 (but what these students really need is …)
  • Private tuition £25 – 40 per hour
  • Clinical psychologist – £50 – 300 per hour
  • Constant emotional support / Parenting / home life – priceless – or not – some children’s homes charge up to £250,000 per year per child –

Schools are expected to close the gap for these students with this money? And at a time when schools will be facing real cuts of between 7 – 12% according to the Institute for Fiscal studies, a ‘very difficult’ decision for Cameron but, hey, could we still close the gap?  Well, with what, exactly?

And if schools are shown to be unable to close the gap? What then? Why, forced academisation. Who runs those academy chains again? What’s their success rate?  How much do they earn, by the way?  There’s the Harris Foundation, an ‘exempt charity’ – named after Lord Harris (personal fortune estimated at £275 million and Tory donor). Estimated salary of a Harris Foundation director? £243, 027.  Or perhaps E-ACT, stripped of 10 underperforming schools, or the Academy Transformation Trust with 7 RI schools out of 9.   No excuses.

I don’t want to blame individual schools or teachers, simply to remind us to be aware of the negative rhetoric which slams teachers as ‘enemies of promise’ while introducing a programme of free schools, expanding grammar schools and forced academisation, which offers an illusion of freedom and choice whilst in fact deftly shifting the huge responsibility for social inequality onto those same schools and teachers. Teachers whose Herculean efforts are taken for granted, who are presented as shirkers and skivers by politicians and the press. No excuses.

There are many schools working incredibly hard to close the gap and offer equality of opportunity to some of the most disadvantaged children in our society and I wholeheartedly applaud them. By all means use a knowledge-based curriculum and a strong behaviour policy to try and balance the educational books. But beware ‘no excuses’. Because ‘no excuses’ doesn’t apply to everyone. It doesn’t apply to bankers or there would have been people with prison sentences. It doesn’t apply to politicians as they never face the consequences of their term in office 15 years later when the students have gone from early years to A-level – the students, parents and teachers do. My concern about the ‘no excuses’ rhetoric coming from the teaching profession itself is that it suggests we have absorbed the negative political lie that it is entirely our responsibility to solve problems which we are not adequately resourced to solve. There are reasons. Reasons resulting from social inequality, from political choices borne of expediency and protecting vested interests. Reasons which we need to continue to identify and fight for increased investment to address.

There are ‘no excuses’ for us. But while we, and the children we teach, are taking responsibility, the politicians are not even justifying their actions: they really do offer no excuses.

No surprises.

4 thoughts on “No excuses: who is taking responsibility?

  1. Thank you for writing this post. So many of the points you raised Ihave wanted to say in meetings, the few I raised were met with silence or the usual ‘what else can we do’ I sense a dark time ahead for teachers, more so than we have experienced so far.


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