Those of you who have got to know me on twitter over the last few months may have been aware that there was a charity screening in Norwich recently of the film I, Daniel Blake. I’ll be honest with you, I had not actually seen the film before seeing it at this screening, and although I had meticulously read the screenplay, it in no way prepared me for the on-screen ‘kick-in-the-guts’ this film delivered.
Whilst hunkering down in the plush seats at Cinema City, with the 106 other folks who had purchased tickets, I began to think about the underlying themes of the film. Those of friendship, compassion and resilience in the face of adversity. Daniel Blake exhibited all of these traits in spades, yet he was defeated by a system which did not value any of them. Daniel struggles against a benefits system designed to make it difficult to access the support he needs to merely carry on living. The Job Centre is a place where Daniel tries to prove his worth, he does everything within his means to do what they ask of him, yet he is punished at every step of his journey. Although he has a near-fatal heart attack, he is deemed fit for work, and on subsequent visits to the Job Centre is told that he is not trying hard enough to find work. The clear message to Daniel is that he is not good enough. That he is somehow deficient. One of the Job Centre advisers, at one point actually tells him:’This is not good enough.’ He is told he has failed, and there are NO-EXCUSES.
It is at this point that Daniel recognises that he has been beaten, that there will be no kindness for him and that his resilience and stoicism will not be recognised or supported. This sense of defeat, this all pervading destruction of his self-worth has, it appears, been the sole purpose of the benefit sanction placed upon him, to break him down and make him incapable of fighting for the benefits he is entitled to receive.
In an earlier scene we witness Katie, a young mum with two children, trying to access the benefits they deserve. They have moved from London to Newcastle to enable them to make a new life, leaving behind any family support. New to the area, she gets lost on the way to the Job Centre and is late for her appointment. This she is told is not ‘good enough’, that there are NO-EXCUSES. She had her opportunity and she missed it. Even though other customers in the Job Centre have no problem with her being seen first, the staff ask her to leave.
Whistle-blowers (usually brave employees) in the UK benefit system have shown in recent weeks that the Job Centre’s main aim is to discourage claimants, and bonuses are even paid for how many benefit claimants are deterred from accessing the money to which they are entitled.
The concept of ‘no-excuses’ or ‘zero-tolerance’ as I believe it is described in the USA, is the policy the government is using to encourage benefit claimants to give up on the system which is supposed to be there to support them. By not accepting Katie’s excuse that she was new to the area and had got lost on the way, the member of staff is denying Katie’s basic human right to be heard. No matter how supposedly ‘rude’ Katie may be, the premise that there is ‘no-excuse’ for her lateness is at best absurd, at worst emotionally abusive. And I do mean that! Yes, to deny her the right to be taken seriously, to be dismissed and punished for a tiny mistake, getting the wrong bus, is ridiculous, petty and immoral.
Again, Daniel in the film is told there are ‘no-excuses’ for his hand written CV, although he has a been a manual worker all his life, cannot use a computer and actually walked around town asking for jobs in person. The poignant scene where the Job Centre worker holds up his hand-written CV with a look of disdain on her face, was the most powerful for me. It was the point where Dan knew he was finally beaten, and the behaviour echoed how angry school teachers used to shame and ridicule children back when such things were allowed in schools.
Such behaviour towards adults, some may consider ‘fair-play’. But now let’s turn to children. The children in this film witnessed the suffering of the important adults around them. They had no option but to survive as best they could. Be in no doubt that the cruelty the children witnessed, delivered by those that were supposed to help the adults in their lives, will have a lasting effect on them as they grow and when they themselves are adults. I can assure you, it will.
And now to where this is leading. Those of you who engage with me on twitter know how passionately I feel about schools, education and children. The ‘No-Excuses’ ideal is now being touted and used in classrooms in some schools in the UK. I have tried on occasion to explain the need to take the rights of children seriously. No one should be treated like Daniel Blake or Katie? Dan was told there is no excuse for his hand-written CV, although the action he took to find a job was far more useful. Or Katie, whilst desperate to hold herself and family together, takes the wrong bus and is punished out of all proportion to her mistake.
Anyone, who advocates a ‘No-Excuses’ policy in schools risks mistreating children. This policy is telling children that what they say, want and FEEL does not matter. In striving for ‘authority’ in the classroom, schools and teachers are undermining the children they profess to support. Children are human, they make mistakes. They have excuses. Maybe like young Daisy in the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ they have a struggling mum to support emotionally at home. ‘No-excuses’ is a policy built on a consciously cruel choice to keep children in their ‘place’, to silence their fears and in some extreme instances, to stop them from acknowledging their own lived ‘truth’.
We do not need this consciously cruel policy in our schools. Teaching is about encouraging, caring and most important of all, compassion.