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Rachel Jenkins

Why shaming teenagers late for school is behind the times

Who knew we had a behaviour tsar for schools? Not me — until he was interviewed recently for this newspaper. Tom Bennett says he believes in introducing punishments for pupils who are continually late for school. He advocates making persistent offenders mop floors or clean up chewing gum. And teenagers arriving at “a hundred o’clock” — as mine are wont to say when they are catastrophically late — should be made to walk to school with their parents (oh, the shame!).

Many local authorities are even preparing fines for parents of late arrivals — drastic measures that get results, says Bennett. But surely such dictatorial tactics are destined to backfire? I fear this “whatever it takes” teaching culture contradicts new thinking on positive discipline for ever more anxiety-prone children. It feeds a reward/punishment cycle that produces short-term gains, but ignores the underlying causes of some behavioural problems.


  • 37% of children aged 11-16 walk to school in England. For journeys under a mile, it is 87% (National Travel Survey England 2015)

I am the parent of a consistently tardy teenager. My 13-year-old daughter has even been late for the detention she got for being late. Our other three children are good timekeepers, so this is a curious conundrum. Even personally delivering my daughter to the school gate does not guarantee punctuality in the classroom. Rewarding her for being on time or punishing her for being late has proved ineffective.

Now, after reading about the theory of positive discipline, we have started to explore her daily procrastination more thoroughly. The psychology is to make children feel more responsible for themselves, while engendering a sense of belonging at home and at school. You provide them with a structured chore rota, encourage teamwork and a “we’re all in this together” spirit. Based on the work of the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler in the 1920s, you sign up for “four steps for winning co-operation”. Empathy is the key: instead of blaming a child for bad behaviour, ask what they are feeling and express understanding. The most useful solutions may come from the child themselves. It also suggests you should stop doing so much for your child. I used to pack my daughter’s bag in the morning; now I let her organise herself.

Research shows that treats for good behaviour create approval junkies, motivated by self-gain, whereas punishments only serve to create punishers. The rise in suicide, self-harm and depression among children in the UK suggests the prevailing teaching culture that prizes instant results is not as effective as it could be. And what of the children who are perpetually late due to a myriad of upsetting family reasons rather than because they are simply lazy? Humiliating punishments such as floor-mopping seem like a step backwards, not forwards, to me.