Today I visited a well known free school in London which practices a no-excuses behaviour policy. I had heard so much about it on Twitter and thought I would see for myself what the fuss was all about. I was curious to see what excellent school wide behaviour looks like. In my experience so far, both during a stint of volunteering in various schools and from my work as a teaching assistant at my current school, disruptive classroom behaviour is a widespread issue. A colleague of mine had been to visit this school last week and had commented that, while the children she saw were well behaved, she felt they were “a bit like robots”. Does a strict behaviour policy turn children into passive vessels and stamp out their individuality? I had my doubts but wanted to find out.
As I approached the school in the pouring spring rain, I heard the sounds of laughter coming from the playground. I saw happy-looking children playing with basketballs in the sheltered part of the playground. At lunch I sat with a group of year 7 children who displayed a range of personalities. One girl looked shy and said very little. One boy bragged that he was going to be a lawyer when he grows up. Another talked about his favourite basketball player, and how he admired him because he had overcome hardships in his life (we had been asked to discuss who our role models were). As I watched, the children had a lively chat about this and that with each other, displaying the usual ebullience of twelve year olds. I did not see anything remotely robotic about them. They looked to be normal, happy children. The only difference was that they followed the rules. When the teacher addressed them, they were silent and listened. When they were told to clean up their tables and check for food on the floor, they did so without being asked to twice. I saw obedience yes, but not at the expense of individual personality.
Then came time for appreciations. I had heard of these and my initial reaction was that they sounded a bit cheesy and verging on the cult-like. In actual fact, I found them rather sweet. Most children put their hands up, longing to be picked. When chosen, they stood up with pride and spoke out loud their gratitude to someone. A boy appreciated a friend of his who had managed to control his behaviour and not get a detention. Another student thanked a teacher for running an after-school chess club. In the course of this gratitude fest, I felt the vibes of positive energy around me and understood how thanking others can make us happy. What a simple yet positive philosophy.
During lessons I observed after lunch, I was impressed by the high level of behaviour. It was interesting to see work being done in absolute silence. Interesting and refreshing. I realised just how much I had gotten used to small rumbles in the background during lessons. Silence is something entirely different. I also realised just how precious that silence is. In one lesson, the children were given a writing task, and I could sense their minds focussing on the job at hand without the distractions of children talking or giggling. How I would have loved to have had this as a child at school! When children needed to ask a question, they put their hands up. They didn’t seem shy about asking for help when they needed it.
I also saw an instance of one student being told off for his negative attitude. He was slouching in his seat and, when asked a question, answered grudgingly. When asked to repeat his answer in a better tone of voice, he still sounded surly. He was sent out of the classroom forthwith, with minimum fuss. As he walked out of the classroom, annoyance was plain to see on his face. However, there was none of the bravado you often get when a troublesome student sees misbehaviour as a badge of honour. Draconian measure? Perhaps. But children are resilient and I doubt he is scarred for life. Maybe he might reflect on his behaviour and adapt it in future.
So, I did not see what my colleague saw: children devoid of personality, acting like robots. It strikes me that possibly we have become so unused to seeing obedient children that when we do, we are immediately suspicious. The other striking thing is, that in this no-excuses environment, authority is clearly invested in the teachers. There is no doubt as to their authority, it is never in question. This too, is something we are unused to and many of us are uncomfortable with. However, we must not conflate authority with bullying, or lack of caring. For during my visit, I saw many instances of kindness, of humour, of understanding. This is no Gradgrindian world from a Dickens novel.
One last observation I made today. I noticed how different the girls were. How often do we see young teenage girls today acting in a rather sexualised way? Whether it’s wearing clothes that fit as tightly as possible, or doing their hair and eyebrows to look attractive to the opposite sex, or just strutting about in an attention-seeking way. I was struck how the girls looked like girls, not young sirens. In a culture where academic endeavour is praised and respected, there is far less need for girls to get their self esteem through their looks. Who would have thought it? Turns out a no-excuses culture also fosters feminism.