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The Power of Punctual

“You’re wincing” said my wife. “You’re actually wincing.”

Wincing for me is my way of quietly being appalled. This particular wince was brought on by my better-half telling me a story about how when they were children, and trying to travel as a family of five on trains through Europe, her father would take great pleasure in reading the train timetables and ensuring that they would arrive at each connecting train with seconds to spare. His greatest high came from ushering the last of his three children onto a train just as the doors were closing. For me, this was too much. The risk of being late, too palpable.

I found myself wincing again this week as I listened to a fascinating assembly but simultaneously noticing that unless the speaker wrapped up instantly, we would be late for the first lesson. Barring a fire-alarm or seismic tremor, I see no reason for being late to lessons, ever. Lessons at Cothill are currently thirty-five minutes long. If a boy, or godforbid a staff member arrives late, then the impact on that lesson is catastrophic. It not only leaves the latecomer with gaps in their knowledge, it has a knock-on effect for those pupils who arrive on time, as the teacher then needs to repeat what’s already been covered.

Arriving on time begins with us, the staff. When we are late, we are saying ‘my time is more valuable than yours’. However, being on time and ideally being at the front of the room when the children arrive shows that we are in control, reliable and respectful of another person's time. I’ve sat in countless meetings about grand strategies and ‘blue sky’ ideas to improve pupil attainment and whilst many of these have merit, they’re all pointless if we can’t get this one aspect right. Starting on time.

It goes beyond the classroom too. Cothill House is the busiest school I have ever worked in. It offers its boys more activities than any other school on my radar. And yet if these activities don’t start on time, with the right people in the right place, it undermines the whole purpose of the activity in the first place.

I am certainly guilty of ‘finding my stride’ during a staffroom announcement or assembly presentation. My mother is constantly reminding me that I ‘love the sound of my own voice’. But it is often this ‘monologuing’ that causes the lateness I'm rallying against. So how do we address it?

Being realistic about the amount we try to cram into a day. There’s no point in having the pottery club and away sailing fixture back to back as either the pottery studio is left a tip or we’re late for sailing and that reflects badly on us as a school. Are lessons the right length? If they’re short and therefore more frequent, does some of the lateness come from expecting our children to relocate 7 times each day? Could some of our announcements be communicated just to the select few staff or pupils who really need the information in a different more succinct manner? Are our lessons appealing enough? Our boys rarely amble to gaming club or woodwork sessions. They’re often queueing outside the classroom early. What can we do to give our core subjects the same appeal?

Reading this back, and again wincing at the realisation that I've finally become Mr Berry, my English teacher at Harrow School who handed down punishments when I was ever late, I fear it may seem like a rant. But I really believe that if we can get on top of these little things, then maybe some of the bigger picture issues will start to solve themselves. Anyway, must dash, can’t be late for Year 4 science.

“The habit of being prompt once formed extends to everything — meeting friends, paying debts, going to church, reaching and leaving place of business, keeping promises, retiring at night and rising in the morning, going to the lecture and town-meeting, and, indeed, to every relation and act, however trivial it may seem to observers.” –William Makepeace Thayer, Tact and Grit, 1882

Tom Aubrey-Fletcher

Head of the Junior School

Cothill House