- Lateness should have same-day consequences.
- An analysis of the reasons for lateness will help you to put strategies in place to tackle them.
- Staff must set an example of punctuality by being on time themselves, and should be respectful and consistent in their application of any rules on punctuality.
First session punctuality
One wet November morning I stood in the foyer of a South Yorkshire secondary school and watched a horde of damp children struggling wearily up the drive. The occasion of my visit was an audit of attendance, to be conducted in partnership with the local authority (LA) and the school. This was our first activity: a review of the start of the school day and the effectiveness of the welcome from staff.
Jill, the attendance leader, stood beside us, trying her best to look cheerful. It was now 08.40, five minutes after the start of registration, and the line of latecomers continued to snake into the far distance. Intrigued by the complete lack of urgency shown by this soggy column of latecomers, I posed a question. ‘What do you do when they’re late?’ I asked. ‘We text the parents,’ Jill said brightly.
The LA attendance lead raised an eyebrow; this was a troubling start to our conversation. It occurred to me that some of these children prob-ably did not have parents as maniacally vigilant as mine had been 40 years ago.
I thought I had better see how the school’s approach escalated. ‘What happens if they’re late twice in a week?’ I asked. Jill smiled proudly. ‘We phone the parents,’ she said. So, to summarise, there were no consequences for the pupils, merely a message home. I thought the LA attendance lead was about to explode. Meanwhile, the line continued to drag itself reluctantly into the building. We counted 132 late pupils that morning.
A few months later, the picture is very different. The school now holds a mid-morning, same-day detention for latecomers, whose number is usually below 20. I heard recently from a PGCE student that she was bewildered by ‘behaviourism’. In my opinion, however, detention for latecomers provides a very clear demonstration of the effect of consequences on behaviour.
Lateness to lessons
Punctuality is rarely, of course, an issue that restricts itself to early mornings; there is also the issue of lateness to lessons. How many senior leaders have to pop their heads into staff rooms to remind colleagues that the bell has sounded and they really should be on their way? The adults have to lead by example. The reluctance of some staff to arrive on time reminds me of a placard that once adorned the wall overlooking the players’ entrance to the pitch at Villa Park, home of Aston Villa football team: ‘If you are not fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired, with enthusiasm!’
Pupils have been known to perform a number of tricks to avoid arriving to lessons on time:
- The visit to the year office – never mind the fact that Declan has just had a 20-minute break, he presents himself in need of a pastoral chat only a minute before the end of the break. Smart year teams will refuse to see anyone during lesson time, unless of course it is a genuine crisis.
- The ‘I was waiting for a friend’ gambit – how can we expect Nasreen to be an independent learner when she is unable to make it from room C15 to E Block without the reassurance of a friend in tow? Such excuses must be challenged.
- The ‘Sorry, I thought it was Week One’ tactic – those schools considering the introduction of a two-week timetable might want to consider the licence this gives to the terminally disorganised (which, incidentally, can include pupils and staff!). Make sure that the structure of the school day does not create confusion or provide easy excuses for lateness.
- Overstaying in the toilets – duty teams should be clearly aware of potential loo-loafers and duty staff of both genders need to be within hailing distance so that miscreants can be smoked out. I use the term ‘smoked’ advisedly, of course.
If you analyse the key reasons for lateness to lessons in your school, it will not be enough simply to put a few strategies in place. You must, at the same time, talk to the pupils and make it clear why such excuses will not be accepted. (See the Toolkit for ideas on encouraging punctuality.)
In the event of persistent lateness, whether first thing in the morning or for individual lessons, a meeting with the student’s parents or carers may need to be called. Such meetings, organised after a fortnightly or half-termly review of the relevant attendance data, can be an effective way of discussing the problems and building a meaningful and permanent solution. (A sample letter for use with parents/carers in such situations is included in the Toolkit section.)
Staff as role models
The problem with punctuality is that we can send mixed messages to young people. Hands up those of you reading this article who work in schools that hold morning staff briefings? Keep them up if these briefings often finish after the registration bell has sounded, leaving staff to dash off at speed and arrive late at riotous classrooms? Such activity is terrible in terms of safeguarding (can the skeleton crew on duty really be everywhere?) and sets an appalling example to the students.
The first question I ask of schools in which punctuality to lessons is a problem is, ‘What is supervision like?’ If members of staff are at their doors during breaks and chatting with young people, then all sort of evils are less likely to occur. One particular benefit is that pupils see that adults can enjoy their company. Where schools have major issues with behaviour, I often find that the staff are hiding away at every opportunity. Kids are not stupid; they know when adults are avoiding them and they act accordingly. Adults have to be in amongst the pupils and, when the bell goes, be chivvying them along.
At this point I will state the obvious. There is a world of difference between two types of ‘chivvying’:
- ‘Right, ladies and gents, the bell has gone. Let’s get to lessons now, thank you!’
- ‘You lot – move!’
Faced with indifference after the first of these interventions, one might eventually – and with some justification – resort to the second. It is disheartening to see how many staff start with this disrespectful bellowing when a gentle but firm word could accomplish things more effectively.
Another factor affecting punctuality to lessons is the response of staff to lateness. I am always staggered by the extent to which some senior leadership teams allow staff to make up policy on the hoof. Can you imagine a train operator that would let its platform staff make their own ad hoc decisions about whether to re-open the doors for any breathless passengers who arrived late? And yet in some classrooms a latecomer could be greeted with, ‘You’re late. Get out!’ (I never have understood this approach: ‘You’ve missed some learning, so go and miss some more.’) Or they are met with, ‘Late again, Jake Smith! I’m fed up with you being late to my lessons. I’ll make you wish you’d never...’ and so on. Surely it would be better to indicate a chair and say, ‘I’ll speak to you in a moment, Jake’? In this way, everyone is aware that action is being taken, but without the lesson being sabotaged.
If we lead by example, and according to standard operating procedures that have clear consequences for young people, we can make a significant difference to punctuality in schools.
To download these evaluation template documents, click on the links:
- Handout Top ten ideas for improving punctuality.doc33 KB
- Sample letter Resolving persistent lateness.doc25.5 KB
About the author
Steve Baker, formerly a teacher for 17 years, is now a freelance behaviour and attendance consultant based in West Yorkshire. He works with leadership teams on their strategic planning, gives operational advice to frontline staff and works in classrooms giving developmental feedback to staff, transforming their behaviour leadership, In addition, Steve delivers courses for schools and colleges, speaks at conferences, writes for Optimus and supports local authorities with schools causing concern. He can be contacted via his website, where you can also read his blog (www.stevebakereducation.co.uk).
First published on this website in March 2014.