Empowerment through no excuses

Excuses disempower. Taking responsibility empowers. 

At Michaela, we have a no excuses culture. What does this mean? It means if a pupil does something wrong, we expect them to own that mistake. We do not expect them to deflect responsibility. We do not expect them to blame other people or their circumstances. 

If they have no pen, rather than saying “my pen dropped out of my blazer overnight”, we want pupils to say “I didn’t check my equipment before I left this morning”. We want them to think “I’ll get to school 5 minutes early so I’ve got time to buy a pen from the stationery shop”. 

No excuses does not mean we leave children to fail. We do everything we can to help our pupils succeed. The example of the stationery shop illustrates that on a small scale. We open the stationery shop in the office before school everyday so pupils have a chance to fix the problem. So Sue’s example doesn’t seem relevant. Were someone to lose their uniform in a fire, we would, of course support them in finding a solution. 

These concepts are not in opposition; in fact, they complement each other. Turns out solutions are a lot easier to generate once a pupil has stopped deflecting responsibility. Taking responsibility, accepting the reality of the situation is often the first step in getting it right.

No excuses is empowering. If you believe a problem is the product of things you cannot control, you place the issue outside of your locus of control. Once you have placed it outside of your locus of control, you have mentally decided you cannot take steps to change it. If you recognise how your actions contributed to causing the problem, you can decide to change that in the future. How wonderful it is to recognise how much you can impact the world!

Excuses are rife in too many schools. 
“I couldn’t help turning round; they called my name”
“I didn’t know what page to do for homework”
“The queue in the canteen made me late for period 5”
“My computer crashed with my coursework on it”

As teachers, we can indulge these excuses, or we can reject them. We can show pupils how different choices could have avoided the situation. We can enlighten them to let them see how they have more control and agency over their life they might initially believe. 

Getting pupils to see the value of taking responsibility is one of the most valuable gifts we can give them. How much richer their lives will be, in every aspect, if they approach the world seeing what they can change rather than what they can’t. 

15 thoughts on “Empowerment through no excuses

  1. logicalincrementalism

    Completely agree it’s important to show students how to make different choices, how to solve problems and that they can take responsibility for more situations than they probably realise.

    But lumping together excuses, failure, doing something wrong, making mistakes and not taking responsibility doesn’t reflect the range of different strategies people need to master to cope with what life throws at them.

    Doing something wrong isn’t the same as making a mistake.
    Doing something wrong or making a mistake doesn’t automatically mean you are at fault.
    Whether you are at fault or not, you can’t always correct the problem.
    You are responsible for your response to a problem but blaming yourself isn’t going to help.

    ‘No excuses’ sounds so appealing. But in the messy real world lightning has a tendency to strike when the stationery shop is closed.

  2. Curlyman66

    Sue’s example was relevant. The phrase “no excuses” is I think what is at Issue. No is too emphatic, clearly her example is a perfectly valid reason for not having a uniform and therefore the child should be excused wearing uniform that day. As indeed in your blog you make clear would in fact be the case. I applaud the taking responsibility for your life that your school tries to instil but the reality is that many things happen to all of us that mean we need to be excused parts of our responsibilities from time to time. “No excuses” as a phrase seems to lack flexibility and compassion. When would a child know that the difficult things happening in their life could be reasons why they might be excused or not? Within my immediate family I know emphatically that my children have needed to be excused home works from time to time recently. Fortunately their school recognises this.

    1. teachwell

      No Sue’s example was an extreme. Instead of excusing the pupil’s lack of uniform the chances are that Michaela would offer them one to wear, as I am sure that the majority of schools would do. If for no other reason that the child has nothing else to wear this would be a humane thing to do. In addition, the humane argument comes straight out of the bag as ‘theoretically’ it seems less humane and at that level it would appear to be the case. However, if you look at what accepting excuses has done to schools, teachers and pupils then the reality points in a very different direction. Accepting excuses from one parent/child after another has eroded school rules as to make them meaningless in many schools. If there are reasons which are valid then go to the school straight up and discuss it as well as what you intend to do to normalise the situation again. If you can’t do this and just want your child to receive special treatment – which is what is actually going on in many schools – then a mainstream school can not function on this basis as it undermines what the adults and other children (who do follow the rules and don’t make excuses for themselves) do. You want this to be bad but are not reflecting on the actual practices of schools and the actual effect of excusing behaviour and breaking the rules has on our schools.

  3. suecowley

    Hi Bodil, as the two replies above say, it is the phrase that is at issue and not any individual school’s approach. When I wrote the blog, I knew that *any* school would do what my children’s school did. Of course they would. Of course your school would too.

    I have a couple of issues with the phrase itself (I’d best not go into the concept or this’ll turn into an entire blog post of its own). Firstly, if it is to be taken literally, ‘no’ has to mean ‘no’, or we are being inconsistent – the very thing we are hoping to avoid. I’m just not sure we can create some kind of sliding scale of ‘reasonableness’ and then judge each case individually, because my ‘reasonable’ could well be your ‘excuse’.

    Secondly, the very word ‘excuses’ passes the situation over to the child, it implies blame. Sometimes there just *are* reasons for things. Yes, in the classroom situations you describe, of course we need to stop children deflecting blame for things that are their responsibility. (Children all over the world do this – I know my own kids are as likely to do it as any others!) But the issue goes beyond the classroom, and into the real, messy world in which we live. And in that world, literal or metaphorical lightning can strike any of us, at any time, and often when we least expect it. And that is what I was trying to convey by sharing my family’s story.

  4. Chris Chivers

    Hi Bodil. There are many aspects of your post with which I could not argue. I ran my school on 3 principles; take responsibility for yourself, for your treatment of others and for the environment. It was that simple, but allowed for discussion, which with 4-11 year olds was important, to instil an understanding of shared values.
    My issues were raised by DD’s paragraph which brought the “no excuses” issue to the fore, with an example that seemed heartless.
    The blanket use of this term can be misinterpreted, even if you and the staff have agreed parameters. Others will misinterpret, not always wilfully.
    As someone who’s spent the best part of the past 10 years promoting inclusion, tone and clarity of interpretation matter.

  5. bt0558

    I agree with other comments. In addition I fear that students are learning to bully.

    Excuses are rife in too many schools.
    “I couldn’t help turning round; they called my name”
    “I didn’t know what page to do for homework”
    “The queue in the canteen made me late for period 5″
    “My computer crashed with my coursework on it”

    Although the first two are a result of poor choices and clearly are simply excuses, the second two are reasons for issues arising.

    If a student did have to queue for lunch then I think they are wholly justified in returning to class late. Faced with returning late or not getting lunch I would do the same. If the school is unable to arrange for lunch to be provided in a timely fashion allowing students time to eat then the school is likely at fault. To blame the student is simply the school “making excuses” for their failure. Not acceptable in a no excuses culture. They should apologise and try not to do it again.

    Computers crash with student coursework saved on hard drives. It happens. This is simply an explanation not an excuse.

    If the Principal / teachers treated me like this I would treat them with the contempt they deserved and walk out. Unfortunately the power balance does not allow the kids to do this without sanction. For me that is simple bullying.

    Bullies often manage to convince those that they bully to do as they wish, but for me the example is not a good one.

    1. teachwell

      You state that the children are learning to bully but then don’t make it clear how. You then move onto the children being bullied by the principal and teachers because of the power balance. However, again lets look at the reality of the situation – what is happening right now in schools is a tyranny of the children in some cases. They are not learning to bully because of a no excuses culture – they are learning to bully because they think on their whims teachers and members of staff can be sacked. The Heads and SLT who actually push this to new levels are the most ‘progressive’ and so called humane ones who go all out for the child but at the expense of the adults. Some of the nastiest practices I have seen have come from people who carry the facade of being child-centred and welcoming but are in fact the most insecure bullies I have ever met.

      As for you walking out – it sounds like someone has issues relating to authority…..

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  7. Mealy Potatoes

    ‘No excuses’, ‘zero tolerance’, ‘non-negotiables’ and all the other hackneyed mantras that schools come out with are signs of an institution that’s replaced thinking with cliche.

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  9. Infinitejigsaw

    In my opinion the problem is, as others have alluded to, the language used. ‘No excuses’ is an absolute statement being applied to a world which isn’t . As several have noted ‘No’ infers an absolute and therefore as a tag line for your approach it does not accurately describe it, based on your blog. From your description above your approach is flexible, has compassion and is encouraging children to take responsibility for their actions in the situations they find themselves in. What you describe in addition to this responsibility is a solution focused approach understanding that when you reflect on how your own actions have contributed to a situation you can then have choice in the moment or in the future on how you behave.

    If you truly had a no excuses culture you would just be adopting an authoritarian approach whereby those that have the power justify any rule within their system to ensure conformity, shutting down discussion and not allowing any flexibility. Likened to bullying by others. Children would still learn from this but not what you describe as your outcomes in terms of taking responsibility for themselves and their actions in life.

    The blog posts by David, Sue have caused quite an eruption of emotions not least between each of them and all because of two words! Language is a fascinating thing full of generalisations, distortions and deletions as we get our thoughts out succinctly, which when unpicked shine a light onto the beliefs that underpin them. The phrase ‘No excuses’ is no different. What is not said in the phrase is just as important. No implies there is either a yes or a no, a right or a wrong and no in between. An excuse is just a reason or explanation for the circumstances you find yourself in. It becomes a problem when it is used to evade responsibility and this is the actual issue you seem to be addressing, not the offering of an excuse per se.

    Take the classic “the dog ate my homework”. If untrue I am just evading responsibility for not doing my homework and there should be a reasonable consequence for this choice I have made. If however it is true, I am giving a reason in order to be excused from the consequences of not handing my homework in. If for arguments sake the dog did it right before I left for school (i.e. I have had no time to do some or all again.) it is perfectly reasonable for me to be excused as what was outside my control was the dog’s decision to eat the homework. However, there is learning for the future as I must take some responsibility for where I left my homework. This does not make my excuse invalid merely a reason for the situation I now find myself in. Could I have avoided the situation by placing my homework out of the reach of the dog, yes. Would I have thought to do that if it has never happened before, probably not. Therefore it is reasonable to expect it not to happen again provided the ‘locus of control’ reflection happens. However to punish me, as their are ‘no excuses’, rather than give me a suitable extension is just unreasonable and would teach me to behave in a similar manner with others, and this would surely defeat the object of the outcome of teaching children to take responsibility for their behaviour.

    A culture that focuses, in language, on what it does not want is unlikely to succeed in the long run as it focuses people on the undesirable. As a result that is what people see more of and focus on. When the system is then looked at as a whole it appears that the thing being valued is exactly what is not wanted. We get more of what we value. Therefore, in my opinion, it may be preferential to talk about having a culture of responsibility as opposed to a ‘no excuse’ culture.

  10. teachwell

    We already have the ‘humane’ and ‘accept’ excuses culture at schools and how has that improved things? Some of the comments above are exactly what I expect from those that believe that education should be about parenting the child through school – and pretty lax parenting at that. The reality is that the floodgates have indeed been opened and the erosion of school rules is due to constant accepting of excuses and fear of what making children and their parents accept the consequences will do to the school. The behaviour of children is more problematic now, as evidenced by the continued rise of assaults – verbal and physical – on teachers as well as the number of teachers leaving due to behaviour. It’s a strange definition of ‘humane’ which results in constantly shifting boundaries when firm ones are needed, where no does not mean no it in fact means keep pushing until I say yes, and in which the behaviour of pupils and parents has increasingly become inhumane.

  11. debbiehepp

    There is a fine line between ‘no excuses’ and adversity genuinely affecting people’s lives and actions. This posting places all the emphasis on the students’ excuses and how to address them positively – but what about adults’ excuses? Would it have been better presented as a positive culture within the school that supports all people – pupils and staff – to differentiate between ‘excuses’, ‘bad habits’ and ‘responsibility’ and ‘support’.

    In other words, I expect the ethos in this school is very supportive and successful – and a feature of that support is actually to help young people differentiate between ‘excuses’ and ‘getting their act together’ – with, no doubt, a matched ethos for staff, I just think the tenor of the posting and the focus on the pupils alone is unfortunate.

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