No excuses,consistency, special educational needs and inclusion

The impact of budget cuts across education can be seen in debates that bring together behaviour and SEND provision without acknowledging the complexities. 

Sue Cowley’s excellent piece  on inclusion yesterday inspired me to reflect on my own experience.  In doing so, I hope to add to a personal view to her historical context for the current debate which is framed as if these approaches to behaviour and the impact on children with SEND are new.

My experience of poor behaviours

Early in my career, I worked in a school on an estate with a single large factory employer which  closed just after I began.  In a very short period, employment was replaced by increasing crime and the school was targeted every weekend. Monday mornings were spent clearing up wrecked classrooms while children were taught in the hall. Behaviour in the school began to break down at playtime and lunchtime as the leadership structures and lack of external support left teachers isolated.  The answer we were told was to write everything down. As class teachers we continued to provide a safe environment in our classrooms through relationship and consistency. One of my abiding memories was arriving on a Monday to find the skylight in my locked cupboard smashed but the only item missing was a note book in which I recorded the behaviours of an individual. At least he now knew what I’d written about him. As in many schools, the behaviour issues were not a result of the 60s and progressive education but not being able to keep up with increasing rates of change outside the school gates. A new head came in and began to talk about zero  tolerance. It was the first time I had heard the expression. Despite there being a desperate shortage of funding for schools, graffiti began to be removed as soon as it appeared,  senior leaders were more involved in a systematic approach to consequences for behaviour etc and the school gradually turned around. 

The Secondary v Primary v EYFS divide

In the mid 90s I first saw “no excuses” approaches in a secondary school . As a Year 6 teacher, I was invited by a secondary with a comparatively poor reputation among parents to work on a transition project where a maths teacher would be in my lessons and I’d be in year 7 lessons. It was eye opening from the first moments when a year 7 pupil was put in detention for removing a blazer without permission. Clearly we had very different approaches. I trained my classes not to ask permission for basic needs but to get themselves sorted quickly and follow routines that enabled them to stay focused on their work (I still use the phrase “unless this room is on fire or there is an elephant loose, I don’t want to be distracted and neither do you” I love the part of Jonathon Lear’s book about ignoring messages from headteachers during lessons). If a child in my class asked permission to remove a jumper, they’d be reminded that there was no need to ask. Being in year 7 was therefore a challenging but fantastic learning experience. I began to understand why secondary teaching is so different. You cannot have the learning relationships that primary colleagues build day in day out that have such a positive impact on behaviour. Consistency in primary education includes our presence all day, every day. At the end of the project I felt convinced that the promotion of understanding between KS2 and KS3 was 1) crucial to enable us to support young people at that difficult transition and 2) for the knowledge base of the profession to be more coherent. I also gained an understanding of why the zero tolerance (or what is now “no excuses” approach) strategy was used and it could be implemented hand in hand with very strong pastoral care and good provision for young people with special needs. The teacher I worked with is now Headteaxher and the school is many times oversubscribed.  

In the 20 years since that transition project I have seen the profession go backwards as, rather than develop ways to promote understanding, the divisions and misconceptions between secondary and primary have increased. There are notable exceptions. A conversation with @shadylady222 highlighted superb work she has been involved with between secondaries and primaries in the south west. It is the strength of social media that we can be more easily connected enabling me to develop understanding through those conversations.  Sadly, the way social media is also used to point score and grandstand has led to the promotion of comments rooted in ignorance of other professionals’ contexts. I have, at times, resorted to frustration at those in other age phases who “don’t get it” in eg the context of the importance of relationship in teaching. @imagineinquiry had to remind me that if I had a change of class every 45 minutes my teaching would look very different. Before anyone speaks of teaching as a single entity, they need to work across the age phases. Unless they do that, they should preface remarks with reference to the relevant age group. We should recognise that we have a huge amount to learn from each other.  Everything that I have said about KS2 and Ks3 transition can be reiterated for EYFS and KS1.

Inclusion, consistency and children with special needs

My view of inclusion and consistency (and being involved in a transition project 20 years ago does not qualify me to speak about secondary so this relates to primary and EYFS)  is that they are not incompatible.  Some of our most vulnerable and challenging children need consistency. For example, this period before Christmas is a hideous time for many children who find their routine broken by rehearsals, performances and parties. The best primary schools keep structured lessons going alongside the disruption all the way up to the final day of term. 

For children with special educational needs, class teachers need understanding and strong relationships with parents and SENCOs . The parent is the expert on the child and opportunities to listen and share information are crucial. The parent needs to know that they are listened to by both class teacher and SENCO and adjustments need to be clearly agreed and consistently implemented by all staff. The parent also needs to know that their are 30 children working to boundaries in the classroom to which the reasonable adjustment relates. The classteacher’s expertise in forming relationships and teaching need to be recognised by the parent. Outside of schools, politicians need to know that resourcing inclusive teaching is expensive and they have a moral duty to those children.

An expert primary teacher, supported by the SENCO, will include all children and teach children to include each other in purposeful learning activity.  Class rules and consequences are important to maintain that activity but have to applied alongside effective pastoral care and special needs provision. Where special needs provision is effective, behaviours related to a special need are managed without consequence but parent and teacher acknowledge that the child with special needs is first and foremost a child who can make wrong choices and receive a consequence. 

The Sound of Silence

Learning to articulate ideas is a key part of developing thinking and children should be given opportunities to use key vocabulary; this cannot be achieved without children talking. There is also a place for silence so children can think and a place for music to relax and aid creative activity. 


Sometimes internal exclusion is a necessary consequence not just for the child but for the rest of the class but it has to be rare otherwise as with all things it loses impact. Fixed term external exclusions should be very rare and for extreme behaviour unconnected with any special needs. 

Informal exclusions have been going on as long as I have been in teaching. A common method is telling unsupportive or non-compliant parents that their child would be better off elsewhere.  Whilst I can understand the motivation and sometimes the exasperation behind this, it is both illegal and deeply unfair on other schools as @debrakidd wrote this week in another impressive piece. If all primary schools acted in this way, the devastation of lives would be on a scale that would guarantee an underclass of unfulfilled humanity for generations.  Informal exclusion have also been used to avoid having to find resources to meet children’s special educational needs. If mainstream and special schools were funded to meet need across society this would happen less frequently.  There are many children at the moment with significant need who receive an hour a day tuition because society can not find the resources for their education.
Human behaviour is complex and requires expertise and intelligence across the profession. Behaviour in primary classrooms has been good for a long time because that expertise has existed and supported by leaders.. In the context of increasing societal change, behaviour in primary schools is astonishingly good (current children’s behaviour in primary classrooms will only be appreciated at the tipping point of the loss of teaching and leadership expertise) and better than it was thirty years ago. 

An inconsistent society

Outside of school neither consistency nor inclusion is an obvious part of life for some children. The chaos of adult life leaves some children bewildered and forced to grow up too soon. Harry Burns did some stunning research when he was Chief Medical Officer for Scotland on the impact of inconsistency on children’s brain functioning. The issue is not about poverty, although it is obviously incredibly tough to develop routines if you don’t have enough to eat and (we now have significant numbers of parents who don’t) or housing that enables you to sleep. I have more than once upset audiences that include teachers by talking about professional neglect because we, as a profession, work long inconsistent hours that impact on routines for our children. Until society grasps the importance of structures that allow children to grow up in consistent and secure environments, schools will be fighting an uphill battle. At the moment, not only are politicians not promoting society’s common responsibility for children, they are expecting schools to find ways of meeting needs while cutting funding. It’s a situation that speaks to a fundamental lack of collective will power and humanity in our wider society. It is also a situation that calls the teaching profession to redouble efforts to learn from each other and not be distracted by divisions based on ideology or false narratives needed to justify reform.


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