Archive for May, 2020


Rules and exceptions

May 26, 2020

The weekend’s news was dominated by the story of the prime minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and his long trip to Durham during lockdown which he justified, at least partially, in the following way:

The rules make clear that when dealing with small children that can be exceptional circumstances and I think that was exceptional circumstances.

I suspect I’m in the majority in not considering this an acceptable interpretation of the rules. However, given that I don’t feel any particular prior animosity to Cummings, and given that I could easily imagine other exceptional circumstances that I would have thought made his actions acceptable, I find myself considering precisely what the problem is.

This also led me back to many debates about rules in schools where the topic of exceptions have come up. To hear some people talk about the evils of “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” behaviour policies you could be forgiven for thinking that there were schools that make no exception to the rules at all. It is more common than it should be to hear people, usually not working in schools, claim that a rule against letting kids out to the loo means kids soiling themselves, and a rule against letting kids out of the room every time they say they feel sick means that it is normal for kids to sit in class vomiting into a bucket. I don’t think these claims describe any schools at all. I think, if anything, there is far more of a constituency of people involved in education who always¬†make exceptions and will justify almost any rule-breaking as something a child couldn’t help doing. I could probably rant for hours about the most ridiculous excuses for breaking rules I’ve heard from both kids, and, depressingly, from the kind of adult who believes children should be freed from adult authority.

So how do we distinguish between valid and invalid exceptions to rules?

Here are some considerations.

1) Does the exception make the rule pointless?

If making a particular exception to a rule renders the entire rule pointless then it’s not a valid exception. This might seem obvious, but schools often have rules that are rendered pointless by the exceptions. If your break duty is to keep kids out of a school building unless they have a reason to be inside, you may quickly discover that the only kids who don’t have a reason to be inside are those who didn’t realise they weren’t supposed to be in the building.

Giving endless chances before any sanction is given can mean that a rule of “don’t do X” quickly becomes “do X as much as you like, until a teacher tells you to stop”. Not confronting a child’s behaviour because they will respond badly to being confronted, can mean that rules are essentially guidelines to be followed by choice.

2) Is the exception actually exceptional?

Related to the last point, the sheer number of exceptions can make a rule pointless. A rule of “nobody leaves the lesson” becomes pointless if there are exceptions for medical reasons that are self-reported. In one school I worked in I taught a large class where a quarter of the students had a medical reason to leave the classroom to go to the toilets signed by a member of staff. After I reported this to the head of year and he made it marginally harder to get permission without recent parental contact or in serious cases a medical note, this immediately fell to no students at all.

A lot of the debate over strict rules and special needs is in this category. There are people who use a wide variety of SEN as a reason a child should not have to obey rules or as a reason particular rules should not exist. Many people argue as if being labelled SEN alone was a reason not to obey rules, even though in some cohorts 44% of children (51% of boys) have been labelled as SEN at some point in their time at school. A particular concern is those who begin their claims with “Children with autism can’t…”. These claims are virtually never true, given the nature of autism and how different kids with autism are. A special need should always be special and an exception should always be exceptional.

3) Is the exception obvious and uncontroversial?

One thing that always amazes me about debates on strict rules, is how willing some people are to believe that schools will not make obvious exceptions. Strangely enough, schools that have a rule that students stand up when a member of staff enters the room, don’t actually punish a student in a wheelchair for not following it. Those schools that encourage eye contact when greeting a member of staff cannot be assumed to be attempting to force out those whose SEN might make that difficult. And those who claim that rules against shouting abuse are discriminatory against those with Tourette’s, not only don’t understand schools, they don’t understand Tourette’s either. It’s debatable how clearly school rules have to say “this rule doesn’t apply in exceptional circumstances” as I can only think of one case in my two decades of teaching where an obvious exception wasn’t made (and that was a member of support staff, not a teacher who refused to make it) but we could probably move the debate on behaviour on a lot if everyone could admit that obvious exceptions are made all the time, and the controversial bit is over when we stop making exceptions.

4) Were “non-routine decisions” thought through?

A child has a medical note saying they should be let out to use the toilet. They use it every Thursday afternoon, usually as soon as they are given written work.

A child is being investigated for autism. Their paperwork says clearly that they will not be able to cope with being shouted at and will walk out. They walk out one lesson when told firmly they need to get on with the work.

A child uses a homophobic term that is not common these days to address a friend and they are overheard by a member of staff. When they are told that it is homophobic, they are shocked (strangely enough they usually have to hear this from their friends rather than just their teacher) and it is clear that they did not intend to be homophobic and have agreed that what they said was unacceptable.

All these cases are ones where, at the very least, there is room to consider for a moment, whether the normal course of action is the appropriate one and/or whether some follow up action will be needed later. I almost used the term “tough calls” for this section, but actually I’m not sure all the situations described above are “tough” for the experienced teacher, they are just not the sort of routine judgement teachers make without thinking and forget about a second later.

It should be the case that a teacher making a non-routine decision has thought it through and can explain it. This may even require delaying the final decision or making a provisional decision “e.g. I believe this is against the rules, I will look into it before issuing the detention”. It should be the case that schools make situations that require that extra thought as rare as possible by making sure rules are clear and widely understood. This is why it matters if people involved in writing the rules start interpreting them in ways that are unexpected.

5) Were “debatable decisions” considered by the appropriate people and clear guidance given?

If a teacher, even after some thought, is still not 100% sure they are right in their decision, what their decision should be, or even if they are confident but they think a parent might contact the school asking for the justification for a decision, it’s best to speak to somebody else. Firstly, it makes it clear that the teacher is aware of the issue; they didn’t make a mistake, and then try to cover it up. Secondly, this might bring to light more information or even a better understanding of the rules that resolves the problem. Thirdly, it means that if, eventually, it is decided the decision is the wrong one, then they are not personally hung out to dry, it becomes the responsibility of the school to get it right. The other side of this is, if a teacher’s decision is decided to be wrong, they should be informed immediately and the reasons why explained clearly. I have left schools because it was normal for teacher’s decisions about sanctions to be overruled without the teacher being informed or where managers would deny responsibility for the things they made teachers do.

I hope these are useful considerations about rules and exceptions in schools. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether any of these points also apply to the case of Dominic Cummings.

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