No Excuses: High Standards, High Support


Our school, Michaela, has very, very high standards. We expect every pupil to arrive at school on time every day, and we expect 100% attendance. We expect every pupil to arrive in school fully equipped for learning. We expect every pupil to have completed all their homework, and to a high quality, every single evening. We expect every pupil to behave politely, responsibly and kindly around school, in lessons, breaks, lunch and outside school. We expect every pupil to move swiftly and in single file lines between lessons, so that children are hardly ever late to lessons. We expect every pupil to greet teachers and guests with eye contact and a polite, cheerful, ‘morning, sir!’ ‘afternoon, miss!’


We also have a culture of full responsibility for choices, mistakes, setbacks and habits, with no excuses. We believe responsibility is incredibly empowering, and that excuses are disempowering. When pupils try to come up with excuses and deflect responsibility for not bringing their equipment, for not bringing their homework, for distracting others in lessons or for reacting negatively to their teachers, they inhibit themselves from improving. When they take the tough choice to ask – ‘what could I have done differently?’ – they improve faster and feel happier. It also reduces other pupils’ time in lessons being taken up on teachers handing out pens to those who have forgotten them, or on confrontations about one individual’s behaviour when the other 31 pupils in the class would be better focused on learning than on watching an argument.


We set detentions for lots of reasons: for arriving 1 minute late to school or more; for not bringing in the daily homework; for homework that is incomplete, badly inaccurate or dreadfully scrappy; for not having the right equipment (for example, not having a library book; not having a pen; not having a pencil case; not having a ruler [because we read in almost every lesson using rulers for visible accountability]); for reacting badly to a teacher’s instruction or demerit, such as sulking, tutting or rolling eyes. We would give a detention for persistently turning round in class after a teacher has reminded the pupil not to do so.


Detentions aren’t barbaric. Ours are 20 minutes during lunchbreak or after school, and pupils do not write out lines repeatedly or copy out reflection letters, but instead self-quiz using their knowledge organisers in a subject and topic of their choice to revise what they’re learning in lessons.


Detentions are clear consequences and helpful reminders to improve. They signal to kids what the school and wider society values: responsibility, punctuality, politeness. Their certainty and consistency is far more important than their severity. It is absolutely certain in our kids’ minds that if they are late, lazy or rude, they lose the privilege of playing tabletennis or basketball in lunchbreak, or going home with their friends at 4pm. The instantaneity of lunch and afterschool detentions means that pupils can more easily remember why they incurred the detention, so that they haven’t forgotten the reason for it the next day some 24 hours (or more) later. It is kinder to give pupils the clear message through a detention that rudeness is not permitted, that respectful interactions are expected, than to permit and thereby promote rudeness or slackness that may damage their chances in life in the future.


No excuses does not mean no legitimate reasons given, ever. We minimise unnecessary exceptions so as not to create moral hazard and norm contagion: if there are inconsistencies between teachers or too many exceptions being offered, more and more pupils begin to wonder why they should have to arrive prepared or work hard in lessons or at school if others do not. If a school is too permissive, allowing too many exceptions, it risks creating helplessness, selfishness or dependence in its pupils rather than responsibility, consideration and agency. If a school reduces its standards for poorer pupils because of their poverty or difficult home life, it does them a disservice; frankly, it doesn’t believe in them enough. Schools in the responsibility paradigm empower every child, even the most disadvantaged, even those with the most traumatic pasts, to overcome their difficulties and change their life chances.


It is vital to distinguish between excuses and reasons. For instance, at Michaela, if a parent writes a note to explain that their child was in A&E for the entire evening, but has managed to attend school, we see that as a legitimate reason, and we do not give them a detention for incomplete homework. Otherwise parents may not have them attend at all that day, and they’d miss 8 hours of school! Other examples of humane decisions (that are the same for all children in these circumstances) are:


A child has broken his or her leg or has some other severe physical injury, and cannot walk swiftly in the corridors – they are of course allowed to leave the lesson five minutes early and take the lift.


A child has lost their bag on the way to school – instead of incurring several detentions, they are provided with a pencil case and equipment for the day. This has happened once in two and a half years, partly because it has become a collective norm to arrive prepared, and partly because we have taught pupils to check and double-check their belongings when they leave the house and leave the bus or train.


A child has lost a loved one and attend the funeral instead of school – instead of expecting homework from that evening, we do not set detentions. However, although it is difficult, we expect homework to be completed from then on, whilst offering emotional support, listening, guidance and stoical and Tibetan philosophy to help them overcome their grief and bereavement. We also preempt this by teaching them Eastern wisdom about mortality before they encounter the bereavements we all inevitably encounter in our lives.


A child is visiting a parent who is very ill in hospital – instead of expecting homework from that evening, we do not set detentions. However, we would support the child through this difficult time and ensure that just because they are undergoing family troubles, we do not lower our standards for them – that they must get back on track as soon as possible.


These are not excuses; they are legitimate reasons. How do we distinguish? The above list is not at all exhaustive. We use a few rules of thumb: how fully was the choice within the child’s control? to what extent could they have chosen differently, and chosen better? Clear, strong guidance from the school is useful feedback to children about what society values: responsibility over irresponsibility, politeness over rudeness, self-discipline over laziness. Very, very occasionally, when there is almost nothing the kid could have done differently, we accept the explanation. Most often, mistakes and setbacks are opportunities to learn for next time. To err is human; to fully acknowledge (rather than to excuse) our weaker choices is the route to improving our lives.


As a school, we understand that such high standards without high support would be punitive. So we focus on how we can preemptively support and nurture our kids. We spend seven days in Year 7 induction teaching our children exactly how to meet our standards. Of course, we are still evaluating, improving and evolving these support mechanisms – and we are open to suggestions and ideas to strengthen the support that enables agency without risking dependency or learned helplessness.


High Support on Equipment

  • Provide pupils with a fully-stocked pencil case on their arrival in Year 7
  • Give pupils responsibility for replenishing the pencil cases as pens run out or ruler break, etc
  • Provide pupils and parents with checklists of all required equipment
  • Offer pupils with £10-£20 back-up packs that provide 1-3 years worth of supplies of all necessary equipment so they can restock at home without
  • Provide a school shop open before school every day, where all necessary equipment can be bought by children, at slightly subsidised prices as it can be bought in bulk by the school
  • Display equipment checklists on large, clear posters in every form room so that every pupil is crystal clear on precisely what equipment is necessary to bring in every day and there is no ambiguity
  • Simplify equipment requirements by having one simple, standard pencil case, to prevent expensive, competitive brand-war escalations between pupils and to reduce costs for all parents and children
  • Run equipment checks three times a week (or more) in morning form time to help pupils keep on top of their equipment
  • Send frequent letters home to parents with the required equipment checklist and reminders of the opportunity of back-up packs
  • Spend an entire lesson in induction on the expectations, consequences for equipment at the school, as well as tips for always being prepared and making optimal choices: packing bags the night before, self-checking and double-checking the night before, triple-checking in the morning using the home support checklist.
  • Ask elder siblings of those pupils with a few equipment detentions to support them to improve their habits of self-checking and double-checking the night before and in the morning
  • Remind pupils regularly in break and before school about their duty to arrive on time and well prepared to school


The reason why we expect no excuses at all for not bringing equipment is because we are always seeking to maximise support, responsibility and automatic habits for our pupils.


As a result, 99% of pupils bring in all equipment on an average day. Out of our 360 pupils, we have fewer than three 20-minute equipment detentions a day. Given that there are at least 10 pieces of equipment checked in our equipment check, that means that just 3 pieces on an average day are forgotten out of 3600: 99.9% pieces of equipment get brought in by pupils at Michaela every day, thanks to our high support for pupil habits.


High Support on Homework

  • provide a 7 day induction for Y7 with multiple opportunities to practise completing homework in school with plenty of feedback so pupils can meet our standards
  • dedicate a 60-minute lesson to explaining the exact expectations, consequences and top tips for completing homework
  • provide model examples of near misses that result in detentions for parents and pupils, so they know exactly how to avoid them
  • dedicate several practice sessions in the first week of school to completing homework at school so that all pupils are crystal clear on exactly what is required
  • simplify homework in Year 7 and 8 into one, streamlined practice book for all subjects so that pupils only have one book and one strategy to focus on: self-quizzing
  • run afterschool provision supervised by teachers for 90 minutes to allow all pupils to complete their homework
  • run lunchtime, afterschool and before school library with quiet space for pupils to complete homework for 120 minutes in total each day
  • provide supervised computer rooms for all pupils who do not have internet access at home to complete online homework
  • run termly big picture sessions on the importance of homework as a revision opportunity not as a burden
  • daily conversations to support pupils who regularly incur detentions with tutors & co-tutors
  • conversations to support parents whose children regularly incur detentions with middle and senior leaders
  • compulsory homework club for those who repeatedly struggle to complete their homework adequately
  • assembly announcements twice a week to recognise and celebrate those who have put the most time and effort into homework in the previous evening and over the holidays


The reason why we expect no excuses at all for not bringing homework is because we are always seeking to maximise support, responsibility and automatic habits for our pupils.


As a result, quality homework completion is over 95% from KS3 Michaela pupils. There is still much, much more to do to get closer to 100%, and to support and ensure all pupils can overcome their struggles to meet these standards, but because so few pupils do not complete their homework, it is far easier for teachers and tutors to intervene to support them.


High Support on Behaviour

  • provide a 7 day induction for Y7 without Year 8 or 9 so pupils can adapt to our high standards with the full attention of many teachers
  • hold Parent meetings with the Head before September to go over the home-school agreement in detail
  • teach all pupils politeness with the STEPS acronym: speak in full sentences, say thank you, excuse me, please and smile!
  • Teach all pupils what demerits are for
  • Teach all pupils how to respond to demerits and detentions
  • Teach all pupils how to behave in detention to avoid failing them and having to redo them
  • Teach all pupils how to enter and exit classrooms
  • Teach all pupils of how to actively listen and focus in lessons
  • Give a daily sermon to reiterate these teachings before school
  • Give daily reminders and reiteration of these teachings during mid-morning break
  • Give daily reminders and reiteration of these teachings during family lunch discussions on topics like self-discipline and integrity
  • Give twice-weekly assemblies from the head or senior team always focused on the ethos of excellent behaviour
  • Teach six 1-hour lessons to start each half-term focused on the family culture & reasons why our school is so strict
  • Give merits for pupils who make consistent efforts to work hard in lessons & at home, and to be kind around school
  • Give demerits given to remind pupils of the standards we expect: no distracting or disrupting lessons; no rudeness or bad reactions
  • Log these online to help teachers encourage those who struggle the most
  • Share a daily display of merits earned throughout the day shared with the form at the end of each day in tutor time
  • Offer a Friday football and Friday table tennis reward for those pupils with the best merit balance every week
  • Give Friday Commendations from the Head, nominated by tutors for the most improved tutees for behaviour, positivity etc
  • Hold regular tutor conversations with those who at first struggle to meet the high standards
  • Offer parents access to cumulative merit balance on online behaviour system, encouraged to have daily conversations with their children about reducing demerits and increasing merits
  • Send Friday emails to parents with their child’s merit balance for the week, term and year sent weekly
  • Show 6 reward films a year, one at the end of each half-term, for the 95+% of pupils who have a positive merit balance (more merits than demerits)
  • Provide subject revision instead of the reward film to the 5% of pupils who do not have a positive balance, to remind them to keep raising their standards until they are behaving positively and professionally
  • Write daily postcards from teachers and tutors to pupils to encourage them to improve
  • Hold tutor-tutee 1:1 conversations to encourage pupils who are struggling with any aspect of school
  • Hold Deputy Head conversations to guide and encourage pupils who are struggling most with any aspect of school
  • Invite parents of children who struggle to provide structure and support for their child to conversations with the Headteacher
  • Invite parents of children who arrive late, to conversations with the Headteacher
  • Hold Deputy Head inductions of children who arrive late
  • Station teachers on duty outside of school before and after school to keep children safe


The reason why we expect no excuses at all for disrupting others’ learning or being impolite is because we want our pupils to get into the best possible habits that will most help them succeed in life. High standards combined with high support changes kids’ lives.


If your school uses other support mechanisms that aren’t mentioned in these non-exhaustive lists, I’d love to hear about them. We have lots to learn and improve, and schools have been thinking hard about how to support their children for decades. When considering whether to implement support mechanisms, we think hard about impact-to effort ratio, always keeping staff workload and pupil responsibility in mind.


No excuses is not uncaring; it is the most caring ethos a school can adopt, because it refuses to indulge irresponsibility, empowers pupils to continually improve their choices, and nurtures in children the personal agency and consideration of others to live the most fulfilling lives for their long-term future.




About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to No Excuses: High Standards, High Support

  1. Brian says:

    A thoughtful and illuminating post.

    I am not an English teacher but surely excuse the verb and excuse the noun come from the same root.

    Doesn’t “to excuse” mean to release someone from an obligation as they have provided justification for such?

    Your approach is starting to seem the same as everyone elses except for a couple of things…

    1 “We minimise unnecessary exceptions so as not to create moral hazard and norm contagion: if there are inconsistencies between teachers or too many exceptions being offered, more and more pupils begin to wonder why they should have to arrive prepared or work hard in lessons or at school if others do not”

    “Norm contagion”……wow.

    2 “If a school reduces its standards for poorer pupils because of their poverty or difficult home life, it does them a disservice; frankly, it doesn’t believe in them enough.”

    This is poor justification for adopting an approach which lacks humanity. Luckily I don’t have a “no excuses” policy. The school doesn’t reduce it’s standards when it makes allowances in situations where to meet the standard is unreasonable. It is quite possible that some parents go without meals in order for them to buy your £10-£20 equipment pack that lasts 3 years.

    Your approach seems to be born from a wish to make life simple for teachers and managers. Almost anyone could maintain a compliant workforce by adopting the rules that you set. You are taking the easy way out.

    Your school is simply an experiment at the moment. I will sincerely be interested to see whether the model you adopt stands the tests of both time and scope. You adopt approaches which one would no be surprised to find in prisons throughout the UK and I say this not to criticise, simply to observe.

    One thing that does surprise me is that parents allow you to carry on the same way with them as you do the kids. Perhaps this is a reflection on your intake.

    There are sometimes I believe a fine lines between love, tough love and ill treatment. I have heard a number of abusive parents talk about “tough love”. My children who are now between 28 and 34 years of age are all very well behaved and they always have been. They are kind and considerate and treat people with respect and dignity. I don’t believe I ever resorted to “tough love”, a term which you imply in your diagram is synonymous with “authoritative” but this is for me misleading. Maybe “authoritarian” would be a better synonym, but you are the English teacher.

    The other categories in your model are clearly all open to interpretation and opinion. They are also all sensitive to context.

    I really do remain open minded. In 20 years time all schools up and down the land and others may be adopting your model. They may however find that their only source of teachers are ex military personnel and ex prison officers. We will see.

  2. Hi Joe. This is really interesting. We do some of the things you’ve listed as part of our behaviour system but we don’t go as far and this has given me some practical ideas to strengthen our support for behaviour. Thank you.

    I’m still not convinced that this approach can be sustained across all schools or even within a schools that are the local community school. For you it all works because it works – you’ve got a virtuous circle where the infringements are at the margins and the buy-in is secure (and reinforced at a manageable level). People will know what they’re getting into; they’ve made a positive choice. Our challenge is that we have a massive culture change to engineer. Although, at our best, behaviour standards are excellent, we do also hit the buffers of non-compliance, defiance and parental collusion regularly and it takes all of our energy to keep the boundaries firm whilst also being positive and celebratory about all the good things.

    At our school, for a minority, it’s way beyond having pencils and arriving on time. We deal with fundamentally poor, broken attitudes towards teacher authority often driven by low self-esteem and family cultures where conflict and arguing back are absolutely normal. Yesterday I had to explain to a parent that I was not going to let her talk to her son on the phone to hear his side of the story after his defiant behaviour led to an exclusion; I was a) an adult and b) the Head and she was going to need to take my word on what had happened! Actually I had to do that twice yesterday. Most of our students do respond to the consequences regime; the ‘no excuses’ dimension of our system. But we have a large number where this simply doesn’t apply in a neat behaviourist way. They arrive with a host of social and emotional and learning issues that make it hard for them – to the point where a mere demerit would be a peashooter against the juggernaut of their emotions.

    Whenever we launch a new wave of tightening up we get a positive response from the majority but also an increase in defiance, truancy and a rise in exclusions – because ultimately we have to reinforce the boundaries. Whilst I’m impressed with the clarity and logic of your approach, I honestly believe there would be at least 50 students at HGS that you would not hold on to if they attended Michaela. They would walk out or you would kick them out or they would become school refusers. You might believe you could turn each of them around one by one, integrating them into the culture you’ve created. However, when they are all there at once, they actually create part of the culture – peer influence and group behaviours are a major force, often far more dominant that parental or teacher influence. You can’t isolate kids from their environment entirely – it takes time and persistence to shift attitudes but the timescale of persistent non-compliance leading to exclusion is usually far shorter. Sadly.

    We work really hard on this stuff; we’ve got things we can do better; no doubt we can learn from you and other schools that have nailed this. However, I wonder what you’d do in our position when we can’t start again from Year 7 applying the filter of parental choice you have?

  3. Tom hits the nail on the head with his comment about 50 students from HGS refusing to comply with the rules if they were at Michaela. It would be the same concern expressed by most headteachers including myself.
    I worked at HPS in the 1990s as a HoD, as did Tom who was HoY. I think considerably more than 50 of the students in those days in that context would have refused to comply as well. The behaviour of the students reflected the prevailing ethos of the school.

    We then had years of inclusion which in many schools has worsened and often excused bad behaviour.

    What is inspiring about Michaela is that they have been brave enough to challenge current thinking about managing behaviour etc. As a result of this I suspect the 50 students who might not have complied at the outset, under a more liberal ethos, have mostly been won by the measures of toughness and love.

    Both Tom and I should be encouraged by the above and join the revolution.

  4. I think Tom could possibly try rolling out the Michaela approach with each new year 7 intake, while trying a Michaela- lite type approach in other year groups. I’m a primary head, so what do I know about secondaries but having read the book I am going to do the following from next term.
    Replace our ‘ sit and be bored detentions’ with purposeful study.
    Encourage staff to narrate why punishments are issued with reference in particularly to responsibility, gratitude for the gift of education, trust and learning from mistakes, both at the point of application and inassemblies, phse time etc.
    Do a major piece of work on overcoming bad reactions to being rebuked. No more ignoring secondary behaviours.
    Up our game in terms of what is not acceptable e.g. slouching instead of slanting will now merit a demerit. ( or ClassDojo in our setting)
    Do more so parents are more aware of what they are buying into.
    Some of this will need to be modified for youngest children – although overall ethos still high standards, high support- support looks very different when you are three. ( Before I get strung up, they don’t do detentions in the early years and they get merits but not demerits. Not getting a merit is a demerit when you are very young).

  5. debrakidd says:

    But in your book it expressly says that Ahmed was given a detention for not completing his homework when his mother was in hospital. It describes him as “glassy eyed” but the detention was given anyway under the guise that it was for his own good. And I’m a little astonished that you think that one day off homework/school for a funeral and a little stoical philosophy is adequate support for a bereaved child. I desperately hope that no children are bereaved while they are Michaela.

  6. We don’t learn much about Ahmed though, beyond him looking sheepish and glassy eyed having not done his homework because he wears visiting mum in hospital. I don’t think we later find out his mum was dying do we? ( it’s a long book, I may have missed that). I speak as a mum who regrettably spends time in hospital every now and then. My teenage boys come and visit – a bit reluctantly and definitely self consciously- it’s not a lingering death bed scene. If my kids used these visits as an excuse for not doing their homework I’d be furious with them. This is London we are talking about- not like when I got ill in Cornwall and family had a 70 mile round trip to visit me. When I read about Ahmed, I assumed mum was ill like I get ill- annoying, yes a bit worrying, but definitely not family round the bed bidding me goodbye time. Big difference.

  7. behavioura says:

    I also believe in tough love/ persistent consistency but have a different model, can’t leave photo here, will put on my timeline.

  8. Simon Tong says:

    yes – I saw this and flagged it for discussion going forward. An interesting stance and one I think worth exploring, alongside schools such as ISCA.

    Next term though – not now…. [😊]


    Simon Tong

    Deputy Head


  9. Electric Kevin says:

    How can you teach poetry and at the same time punish a child for gazing wistfully out of the window?

    Also, could you expand a little on the ‘Tibetan philosophy’ and ‘Eastern wisdom’ you use to support this system.

  10. I am wondering how this works for children in care, other children with attachment issues, or any additional needs really. Structure and clear expectations are helpful, but it would be otherwise helpful to know how your DT operates.

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