Why Is the British Education System Failing the Children Who It Seeks to Support?

Nina Cave writes a two-part series on education policy. In her final article, she discusses the dire need for more funding in education and calls for a more compassionate, individual approach in supporting challenging students.


Despite Labour increasing funding to education from 1997 to 2008 by 55%.[1] Since the beginning of austerity there have been cuts of 8% spending per pupil in England alongside a rise in pupils by 10.2%.[2]  A lack of funding alongside a teacher recruitment crisis has led to smaller staff bodies at British schools thus increasing workload per member of staff.

A lack of staff coupled with challenging behaviour from pupils, owing to their difficult contexts, has led to what is named in the education community ‘no excuses behaviour policies’. A no excuses behaviour policy indicates behaviour policies where sanctions may include a detention for not having a pen, a detention for turning around in a lesson, or being sent to isolation for the whole day for incorrect uniform. In essence the policy means sanctions for minor mistakes at school.

These policies are justified by a want for order within the classroom – disruptive children must be removed to create the calm atmosphere for learning that ticks Ofsted’s boxes. Ofsted’s guidelines from September 2019 state that ‘the provider has high expectations for learners’ behaviour and conduct’, so a no-excuses behaviour policy is an easy way to fulfil this target. I understand that with increasing pressure on schools these ‘no excuses’ behaviour policies are an easy means of making the most of lesson time and creating the calm atmosphere for classrooms that is necessary for learning. However, Ofsted’s guidelines also state that they expect a ‘positive’ culture and that ‘these expectations are applied consistently and fairly.[3]

I would argue that no excuses where students are consistently penalised for even the smallest misdemeanours does not constitute a positive culture. Also, as discussed in my previous article, those most likely to misbehave at school come from more vulnerable and complex backgrounds and thus these students are punished more frequently than other students.

The word ‘fairly’ in Ofsted’s guidelines therefore comes up for me as contradictory to a ‘no excuses’ behaviour policy. With a ‘no-excuses’ behaviour policy the most affected children are SEN children, looked after children, and children with complex family backgrounds. A drive for results has left these schools so focused on these high expectations and no excuses that it forgets the disparity between students experiences.

Is it fair if children with very supportive homes which are stable glide through school with ease, whilst those from more challenging backgrounds (where they have much more to focus on than bringing a pen into school) are punished despite their hardship?

One example I have seen is: A child’s school shoes break and their parents cannot afford to buy them a new pair – they are isolation until they have a new pair. The school says it’s a repeat offence from this child. Well, the parents can’t afford to invest in leather school shoes so cheap Primark ones will have to do, unsurprisingly they do not last very long.

Another example: a child falls asleep in class and receives detention for a poor attitude to learning – they are tired because they share a room with three siblings and they were kept up all night. Under ‘no excuses’ this detention still stands despite persistently falling asleep in class being a safeguarding concern.

As someone who works in education, I aim for high expectations, but compassion is important too. With a lack of funding in education and, consequently, teachers’ time staff do not have the mental capacity to follow up with every child and therefore, this compassion becomes unaffordable.

Therefore, Labour policy should focus on an increase in funding for education to decrease teacher workload, and thus freeing up capacity for making informed and compassionate decisions for the students whom they are trying to help by taking into account their individual circumstances.

Nina Cave tweets at @NinaCave1


[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6564933.stm.
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/sep/19/education-spending-fall-from-2010-to-now-was-worst-since-1970s-ifs
[3]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/801429/Education_inspection_framework.pdf, 10.
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