Taking responsibility for predictable problems
“All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.” John Von Neumann
Let me preface all this by saying that I think refusing to accept excuses for low standards and poor behaviour is a very good thing. Here’s what ‘no excuses’ means to me: Making an excuse is failing to take responsibility.
The students most likely to be excluded from school are the most vulnerable. This may, in some circumstances, be unavoidable. After spending quite a bit of time looking into the work of Virtual Schools (Local Authority bodies with a specific responsibility for the education over children in the Local Authority’s care) the past year or so, it’s my belief that children in care are disproportionately likely to face permanent exclusion.
The DfE’s Children in care report tell us that, “In 2011/12, 0.15% of children in care were permanently excluded from school. This is over 2 times higher than the rate for all children at 0.07%.” (p. 30) This though is not the complete picture. When we take into account the number who get shunted sideways without officially going on the books, the number of looked after children who are kicked out of school is likely to be far higher.
Last year, I wrote this post on the ‘no excuses’ culture being embraced by many schools. In it I suggested that while we should not excuse poor behaviour, there is no excuse for failing to protect the most vulnerable students in our schools:
It would appear that there are two very predictable patterns of behaviour for Looked After Children. The first is that previously quiet, compliant children often let rip after they’re taken into care. Whilst living with their parents they’ve had to be on high alert, but as soon as they’re relatively safe they can let down their guard. And usually they are angry. Don’t forget, your life has to be almost unimaginably harrowing before social services will take you into care. The second pattern is that previously quiet, compliant children who’ve been in care for years can suddenly explode when they hit puberty. This might be because the effects of shared environmental influences (carers) begin to wear off, and non-shared influences (peers) and genetic influences (birth parents) tend to make themselves felt. Or it might be because neurological changes causing attachment disorders to start making themselves felt. Why doesn’t really matter – the pattern is predictable.
Now seeing as these patterns are so predictable, it seems reasonable to say that schools should plan for them. If a child is taken into care you should expect their anger and move mountains to make sure you don’t add to their misery by giving them an opportunity to make their school placement break down along with the rest of their lives. Likewise, if you have a Looked After Child who’s entering puberty, there is no excuse for failure to anticipate their likely patterns of behaviour. This doesn’t mean you have to excuse their behaviour or make an exception for rule breaking, but it does mean you do everything in your power to make sure they don’t get to break a rule. Schools that use their ‘no excuses’ culture to get rid of their most vulnerable students really have no excuse.
So, what does doing everything in your power to make sure our most vulnerable students don’t get to break a rule look like?
It’s important to remember here the principle that equality is unfair. Treating our most vulnerable students in exactly the same way that all other students are treated isn’t just unfair, it’s monstrously negligent. We know that if say, an otherwise ‘normal’ student falls off a trampoline in his PE lesson and breaks his leg only the worst kind of idiot would expect this student to hobble along to his next lesson and crack on with the school day. We know they should be treated differently.
If a child has been taken into care they are much more likely to tell authority figures to, “Fuck off!” Invoking your ‘no excuses’ policy to exclude this child after they’ve told the Head Teacher to do one, might seem fair enough, but it’s akin to insisting that the broken legged boy go to lessons. Quite rightly, you can’t have members of staff being sworn at by students so the best possible solution is for the Head (and anyone else whose dignity is inflexible) to stay out of their way and keep the vulnerable student somewhere where their utterly predictable anger will not result in having to exclude them. This probably means not sending them to lessons. They may not have broken their legs but they’re probably every bit as unfit for learning.
We should, of course, do everything in our power to make sure that vulnerable children get the help they need in order to be successful in school. This is where the broken leg analogy collapses (excuse the pun) because taking a student to hospital, wrapping their leg in plaster and giving them crutches for a few months is all pretty straightforward. Dealing with the long-term neglect and abuse that leads to being taken into care is not nearly so simple.
While it ought to be the case that these vulnerable students have access to a dedicated member staff whose job it is to check-in with them before, during and after the school day, it ought to be considered even more crucial that every single child taken into care should be referred to an education psychologist as a matter of course and, if needed, given access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Unbelievably, this is far from the norm. This excellent post from Nick Rose outlines the danger of expecting teachers to be amateur psychologists. Although, CAMHS is massively over-stretched in many areas there is no excuse for not making these children our priority. (It should be noted that children in care have £1,900 additional funding which is controlled by Virtual Schools.)
If as a school leader you ignore the need to look after the most vulnerable students in your school, fail to predict the utterly predictable, and end up permanently excluding the children who most need stability and tolerance, for relatively minor infractions of a school’s zero-tolerance policy, then you should be ashamed.
Of course there will be times when these damaged children defeat us. There will be times they do all in their power to make themselves uneducable. There will be times when, with regret, it’s just not safe or reasonable to continue keeping them in mainstream schooling. There are some children who genuinely have no excuse and might learn most from being given short shrift, but not those already on the margins and most at risk of enduring fates most of us would shrink from.
No excuses cuts both ways. We shouldn’t be trying to excuse poor behaviour, low expectations and academic failure but neither should we be excused from doing all in our power to prevent these likelihoods from coming to pass. The bottom line is this: if the behaviour of the most vulnerable children is predictable then we should predict and plan for it. This isn’t making excuses, it’s being responsible.
We should never lower our expectations of how children should behave or what they can achieve, but the belief that this could – or should – happen without support, compassion and careful planning is contemptible.