A Perfectly Reasonable Excuse

This is a true story.

A few years ago, our house got hit by lightning in the middle of the night. The lightning set fire to the electrical system, and there was a serious fire. The hallway was filled with black, toxic smoke. We were lucky to escape with our lives. Many of our possessions got burned, including the children’s school bags and uniforms, which were in the hall ready for school the next day. As soon as the children had got over the initial trauma, they returned to school (we were still living in a hotel at this point). They did not have any uniform to wear, nor any school books. I can still vividly remember seeing my son’s school diary after the fire, when I went to meet the loss adjuster to list the things that we had lost. It was burned, almost to cinders, on the ground outside the front door where the fire fighters had left it.

If, when our children returned to school, they had been punished for ‘breaking the rules’, because they were not in uniform, and did not have their school books, then their school would officially have had a ‘no excuses’ culture and policy. There would literally have been ‘no excuses’ for breaking the rules. There would be no ‘reasonable excuse’ for which the rules could be bent. Happily, in this instance, their school supplied them with new books and presented us with a large bag full of second hand uniform. It still took them several weeks to fully get over the trauma, and it was several months before we could return to our home. To this day, my son is terrified of lightning. And I don’t blame him.

Because he has a perfectly reasonable excuse.

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11 Responses to A Perfectly Reasonable Excuse

  1. teachwell says:

    This is just a dig at a particular school which if you are going to criticise then have the decency to name.

    There is a difference between no excuses for a mobile phone and accepting that a child whose house has burnt down does not have school uniform. Their policy on emergencies may be different to what you think – i.e. they may issue the child with a uniform for the period and let the parent repay it once you are in a position to do so. Ditto for bags and book. That may even be helpful in the interim as the child may not have other clothes to wear.

    It is indirect, sly criticisms like these that are so toxic in schools – if you don’t like it have the guts to be direct. Also make the argument for there being a reasonable excuse to have mobile phones on young people (which given that the parent can ring school and have a message delivered – like they used to before mobile phones).

    I have actually always held you in some respect and this cattiness is certainly not what I would have expected you to write but then no one is perfect.


    • suecowley says:

      This is not a dig at anyone, it is a true story designed to show that the concept of “no excuses” (which originally came from the US) simply cannot be used literally. I don’t think we can use a term with children, if the term is so unclear that it requires several blog posts (see David’s reply below) to define. Children are literal beings; it is not fair to impose adult nuance upon them.


      • teachwell says:

        You article came in light of the post by David Didau and hence the fact that I took it as a response to that. If I have added 2 and 2 and come up with 5 then I can only apologise. Your story is still a one-off however, unless of course you regularly sent your children to school without school uniform or expected them to be allowed to wear other clothes for your own reasons. Although this does beg the question why a parent would choose a school that has a uniform.

        However to say that distinguishing between one-offs and what happens regularly is an adult nuance is unfair to the children that I have taught. Even the 6 year olds were able to tell the difference and only got upset if certain children were let off the hook time and time again for rules that were school rules. That has been my experience in every class I have taught.

        Personally I have always enforced the rules with no excuses and any issues that may have caused the breaking of the rules have been dealt with privately (talking to parents, going to a family support worker, etc).

        Its ridiculous that we know that consistency is the key to good behaviour and ensuring children fell safe but then expect bending the rules to work. This is a black and white area on the whole – you can’t both reinforce the rules and bend them.


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  3. Abena Bailey says:

    I think the point being made here is that extreme cases will mean there is always going to be an excuse (unless I’ve misinterpreted). I don’t find it catty but more of a pointer that reason has to prevail, and not even a school based on an ethos of ‘no excuses’ is going to further traumatise children who’ve had such an experience.
    At least I would hope not…
    (I guess the only person who could clarify for sure is the head herself.)


    • teachwell says:

      Sue has written many fantastic books on children’s behaviour and knows the difference between an extreme one off and what happens in schools daily. Hence the fact that I am surprised this has been brought up. The fact is that the line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere. At the present time the behaviour in many schools is at its worst precisely because we are constantly told not to draw it over basic school rules. The net consequence is more violent behaviour in schools, more teachers and adults being assaulted (I know I have been in recent years and it was not like that when I started teaching). Bending the rules for children does not have the desired effect so why do it?


      • suecowley says:

        If you say there are ‘no excuses’, then you can’t have a sliding scale of ‘reasonableness’, because if you do, you didn’t mean what you said. It becomes subjective: one person’s ‘reasonable’ is another person’s ‘excuse’. For instance, is it a ‘reasonable excuse’ if a family member just died, so I didn’t do my homework? Or if I didn’t do it because I spent last night in the hospital visiting a sick parent? Or if I don’t have the right bag because the dog was sick on it 5 minutes before I left for school? Or if I’m late because the school bus that brings me turned up late to pick me up? Should I be punished for ‘breaking the rules’ in these circumstances? (We may disagree, which is the point.) Either ‘no’ means ‘no’, or it doesn’t. I really don’t believe you can have it both ways.

        Children tend to take adults literally, and if adults then go on to behave inconsistently, this can only lead to confusion. The blog was written to show that ‘no excuses’ doesn’t mean what it says, and it is therefore (in my opinion) not useful to use it. I have never been to a school that uses this phrase, so I can only comment on my views about the phrase, and not on its individual application.


        • teachwell says:

          I’m not sure what kind of system you think is best then. No system will be perfect but I would prefer one with no excuses but which listens to the reasons behind a problem occurring and then deals with the problem if it is possible.

          The sliding scale of reasonableness which is subjective is exactly what does operate in schools right now. It has helped to create the giant mess there is in many schools regarding behaviour.

          I am not sure how equating what are clearly crisis and emergency situations with trivial ones achieves. If the school has a policy on what happens to a child if they are bereaved, then if they apply that policy it is consistent. You seem to think that no excuses means ultra strict and any moving away from that is a subjective opening of the flood gates without realising that as humans we are more than capable of understanding the difference between a reason and an excuse. As for children – it is part of our role to explain the difference between reasonable and unreasonable to them.

          The current system in many schools fails to do that – the unreasonable has indeed become the norm and instead of the child taking responsibility and changing their behaviour, it is the teacher who does so. How does making allowances on an ongoing basis achieve anything?


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  6. E Noon says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. The school sounds great. It could still be a ‘no excuses school’. The school differentiated to make sure the students received books and uniform. If they refused to wear it (at all/correctly) that’s where there is no excuse in my view.


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