Russell E. Kuykendall, Review:

No Excuses: Turning around One of Britain’s Toughest Schools
by Alison Colwell (Biteback Publishing, $28, 244 pages)

In her book No Excuses, Alison Colwell calls for schools that are focused on the transmission of content to students and the shaping of their character, giving students a foundation for the rest of their lives, wherever life takes them. She proposes to do this by creating schools with structure and discipline, including uniforms and smartphone-free classrooms, that free teachers who are experts in their subjects to teach. Instead of teachers’ being distracted by unnecessary meetings and paperwork or being in classrooms hijacked by students who misbehave, Colwell wants to free and to equip capable, caring teachers to educate and to inspire students, irrespective of whether those students come from homes with supportive or dysfunctional parents.

No Excuses is Colwell’s account of taking over what had been a failing school and replacing it on the same site with a new school with a new ethos and new set of rules, but with the same students and parents and, initially, with most of the same teachers. Colwell recounts the challenges of holding the line on students’ behaviour and the required uniform. The biggest challenge, however, came from parents who opposed uniforms and rules designed to create an environment in which their children could learn and flourish. According to a television interview, the anecdotes Colwell relates in the book are “anonymized composites” and are far from the worst episodes with students and their parents. Even so, the behaviour of dysfunctional parents as described is frequently humorous and always appalling.

Over her seven-year tenure at this school, Colwell led a school that gave structure and order to children from dysfunctional homes, impelled students to be the first of their families to attend university, enabled teachers to teach, reinvigorated veteran teachers to carry on as teachers and inspired new teachers to invest their working lives in the classroom. She sought to minimize meetings and paperwork, except when necessary, and encouraged teachers to use effective methods and curriculum, irrespective of what was provided by the department of education. Colwell is critical of secondary education that “phones it in” and fails to challenge students to advance in this next phase of their education. Near the end of her book, Colwell’s open letter to the United Kingdom’s Secretary of Education might just as well be worthy of the attention of Canada’s provincial ministers of education!

I attended a public school, in the North American sense of that term: a taxpayer-funded school, led by a principal who reported to a superintendent of schools who in turn reported to an elected county council which gave political oversight. The school was among the first created to serve farm families in our district whose children up to that time had attended school in a one-room country schoolhouse with all grades taught by one teacher.

When the one-room schools were closed, most teachers accepted posts at the new, consolidated schools. These were “normal school” trained teachers. Until the mid-20th century in rural Western Canada when students completed the compulsory ninth grade, if they wanted to continue, they could proceed to high school or to normal school for one year of teacher training. At the completion of normal school, the latter were certified to teach.

Most normal school trained teachers who continued teaching went on to obtain undergraduate, if not graduate, degrees by taking summer classes at a university. But the normal school trained teachers’ approach to teaching differed, sometimes sharply, from that of university-trained teachers. This was most noticeable in how normal school trained teachers taught us to write the English sentence, paragraph and essay, to learn the parts of speech and diagram sentences, to read English literature, and to construct a well-documented research paper.

In the early grades, learning phonics, participating in classroom spelling bees, practicing printing and handwriting, and memorizing “times tables” was compulsory. Many teachers read to us in the classroom from the Western literary canon. When tasks were completed before the time allotted expired, students were encouraged to read their own books or to find something to read from a free reading shelf. As well as “gym,” the school week included a period in the school library to expose us to new books and engage in free reading, in silence.

By the time we completed Grade 9, we had drafted several documented research papers as well as many letters, essays, speeches, poems, and short stories. We learned advanced algebra and geometry and were exposed to trigonometry. We understood and used the modern scientific method. We imbibed ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman history as well as Canadian history. We read the Bible as literature. We submitted essays and poems to the annual Legion-sponsored Remembrance Day contest. We were conversant in how Canadians govern themselves. We acquired the skill of handwriting and the basics of drawing and drafting. We were exposed to modern languages. We participated in organized sports at school and in community leagues as well as student government.

When we “farm kids” shifted to the city school division for high school, for many of us, what we were taught in Grade 10 repeated what we had already learned prior to starting high school. School was far less demanding. Relative to our numbers, county school educated students were over-represented on the every-six-weeks-posted high school honour roll which included the top 75 students out of each grade’s class of circa 350 students.

Except for the school uniform, my experience of the rules, classrooms, and teachers as a youngster hearkens to what Colwell describes in No Excuses. Even then, in the 1970s at parent-teacher conferences, my normal school trained teachers told my parents that they would not leave the county system because they knew the farm parents would back them up on matters of discipline and what was expected of students. Teachers who came to the county schools from the city system likewise commented on the contrast, generally, between farm parents and city parents in their support of teachers. A key difference between “city kids” and “farm kids” was not innate intelligence. Nor that farm kids lived in homes with higher cash flow. They did not. The key differences were parental support of the school and its teachers, and teachers who were freed to teach, both with a view to inculcating cultural literacy and fostering good character.

Colwell pushes back on those who make schools and teachers the perennial scapegoats, complaining about teachers’ vacations in the summer, at Christmas and Easter. She worries that the complaints from opinion leaders in politics and news media unduly demean the teaching profession, driving the best teachers away and discouraging others from entering. Colwell readily admits that teachers’ vacation time is a “perk,” needed for rest and recovery from investing themselves in children’s development into capable, responsible adults and citizens. She is critical of elected officials and opinion leaders who point to schools with highly selective admissions policies as models of success to be emulated by schools who are tasked with educating the disadvantaged, less gifted, and illiterate. She also pushes back on the notion of reducing class sizes as a be-all, end-all solution for all that ails education.

Colwell is clear on who does what. As a school principal (“head”), she sees her role as creating and maintaining a school environment conducive to students’ learning. Teachers teach. Sometimes, they inspire. Parents are primarily responsible for their children’s behaviour. Elected officials give oversight, make policy, and allocate resources. Done effectively, policy-making and allocation of resources allow principals and teachers to accomplish their tasks with minimal paper burden, to the benefit of students and their families.

These are the strengths of Colwell’s argument. But I wish that she said more explicitly about the divergence over the past 50 years or more from a world view that makes good education qua (as) cultural content transmission and character development possible, if not likely. Education policy and curricula run rife with radical Enlightenment thought (including Marxism), repackaged East Asian mysticism and religions (“mindfulness,” for example) and Nietzschean identity politics (including Critical Race Theory), undercut and tend to undermine the notions of content to be learned, a certain type of character to be developed, and parental responsibility. Without content transmission, character development, and parental responsibility, what is left?

Less foundationally, I also noted that Colwell did not point to schools preparing students for the skilled trades and technical education. When she described students pursuing post-secondary education, it was universities she pointed to. Not all can, should, or want to pursue an academic university education. There is dignity in the skilled trades and technical vocations. These, too, require well-schooled people of well-formed character.

Finally, a small warning. Colwell presumes her readers, mostly British, will be familiar with many acronyms and designations. I found myself making frequent online searches to interpret these. But as this is a book you may well find difficult to put down, I recommend starting to read it only when you can afford to sleep in.

Russell Kuykendall is a frequent contributor to The Interim.