Should schools have longer lunch breaks?

For decades, lunch breaks have been shrinking – apparently because of reductions in numbers of support staff and fears about student behaviour beyond the school gates. We still call it a ‘lunch hour’, but research suggests that few Scottish secondaries now enjoy a full 60 minutes. Given widespread concern about young people’s health and wellbeing, and the opportunities that breaks provide for relaxation and extracurricular activities, should we be having longer lunches, asks Emma Seith
31st May 2019, 12:03am
Lunch Breaks Are Shrinking, But We Need 60 Minutes


Should schools have longer lunch breaks?

In French schools, lunchtime is seen as a lesson where pupils learn to eat good food in a civilised manner - it is not just 20 minutes “where you have to stuff your face as fast as you can”, explains US documentary maker Michael Moore in his film Where To Invade Next.

The documentary, released in 2015, looks at which social policies the US might want to adopt, and it features Moore visiting a primary school in rural Normandy, where he joins pupils for one of their hour-long lunches - which includes a scallop starter, as well as a cheese course.

Pupils in France are entitled to 30 minutes each day to eat their lunch; that half-hour is the time they spend sitting at the table and should not include any time spent waiting for the meal. The entire lunch break in French schools often takes up to two hours.

In Scotland, we might still use the term “lunch hour” to refer to the school lunch break, but pupils and teachers have no right to 60 minutes. As was recently pointed out by the Liberal Democrat education spokesman Tavish Scott, the term is now a misnomer for many pupils and teachers. The lunch hour “does not exist in most schools”, he said in April during an education debate in the Scottish Parliament. It had become “rather less”, he added pointedly.

Scott went on to question what the impact of the squeeze on lunchtime was on pupils’ ability to take part in extracurricular activities associated with music - would they now have time to eat and rehearse for school concerts and performances? He doubted it.

But, of course, the curtailing of lunchtime also has implications for pupils’ ability to take part in sport, to rehearse for the school play or to join a debating society, particularly in rural areas, where the need to get on a bus at the end of the day might interfere with after-school activities and clubs.

Researchers in England recently revealed that the lunch break situation there is so dire that children “barely have enough time to queue up and to eat their lunch, let alone have time for other things”.

These UCL Institute of Education researchers have been tracking the erosion of break times across the school day in England since the mid-1990s. The latest data was published earlier this month and involved more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools. It showed that, on average, in 2017 children in England aged 5-7 had 45 minutes less break time per week than children of the same age in 1995, and pupils aged 11 to 16 years had 65 minutes less.

The findings show that the length of time pupils get out of class is inversely related to their age, so the younger a child is, the more time they are likely to get for play and recreation. In 1995, fewer than a third of English secondary schools (30 per cent) reported lunch breaks of less than 55 minutes, but by 2017 that figure had risen to 82 per cent, and a quarter of secondaries reported lunchtimes of 35 minutes or less.

As a result of their findings, the researchers are now calling for the Westminster government to legislate to guarantee a minimum amount of time out of class for pupils in England.

“Adults, including teachers, have a right to a lunchtime period often as part of their contracts, so it’s surprising pupils don’t,” says report lead author Ed Baines.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) is also looking for some kind of guarantee to be made around the break that teachers and pupils can expect to get over lunch. It wants local authorities’ body Cosla “to establish a minimum 50-minute lunch break … to improve the working environment and health and wellbeing of teachers and pupils”. According to general secretary Seamus Searson, there has been a drive over the past 20-plus years to reduce the lunch break, which is “not in the interest of pupils or teachers” and has more to do with “managing the crowd” than wellbeing.

“The goal is to get them through the dinner queue and back in class as quickly as possible,” he says.

The UCL research did not look at break times in Scottish schools. In a bid, therefore, to get some insight into the situation north of the border, Tes Scotland looked at the time dedicated to lunch in one primary and one secondary in each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. Data from the 64 schools, which were chosen at random, shows that lunchtime in primary can vary from 30 minutes - as in the case of two-class school Nesting Primary on Shetland - to one hour and 10 minutes, at Grange Primary in Monifieth, Angus.

No state secondary among those examined offered a lunch break of more than an hour, and only one of the 32 still had a lunch hour: Fraserburgh Academy in Aberdeenshire. Typically, the time dedicated to lunch in secondary was 40 to 50 minutes, with one school - Doon Academy in East Ayrshire - giving pupils and staff just 35 minutes.

In an era when concerns about children’s mental and physical health abound, it seems counter-intuitive that opportunities for pupils to socialise, exercise and relax are curtailed.

As Baines puts it: “Not only are break times an opportunity for children to get physical exercise - an issue of particular concern, given the rise in obesity - but they provide valuable time to make friends and to develop important social skills: experiences that are not necessarily learned or taught in formal lessons.”

Two main reasons appear to be behind the move to shorter lunch breaks - concern about managing the behaviour of pupils at lunchtime at secondary level, when many Scottish pupils are free to leave the school grounds, and worries about student safety.

When Jim Thewliss, general secretary of secondary heads’ representative body School Leaders Scotland, was a pupil, he remembers lunchtime lasting more than an hour and taking a bus three miles back home so that he could dig into a home-cooked meal.

The fact that now many parents are working while their children are in school and are no longer around to serve up a midday meal might be one reason why lunch breaks have become shorter, he speculates. But the main reason for the cut is supervision, says Thewliss. The shortening of the lunch period was about making sure “young people were not in the community unsupervised for a longer period of time than was needed to have lunch”, he says.

“It’s a health and safety issue,” he adds. “Schools have a duty of care for young people while they are in school and that has always been a worry for us if you have kids of 11 or 12 out in the community.”

Scott is dismissive of the idea that lunchtimes had to be shortened in a bid to keep pupils safe, describing it as “mollycoddling”; others point out that by the time pupils are in secondary, they are often making their way to and from school independently and exploring the community outside of school hours.

When it comes to the lunch break being reduced to control behaviour, the UCL academics are sympathetic. They say it is clear that difficulties can arise at breaktimes and it is understandable that schools would want to limit poor behaviour. However, they stress that “pupils’ views about breaktimes were at odds with the views of school staff”.

In their paper, “School break and lunch times and young people’s social lives: a follow-up national study”, they write: “The vast majority of students viewed breaktimes very positively and valued the social opportunities they allow, as well as the opportunities for eating and drinking.

“Pupils would, in fact, prefer break and lunch times to be longer and would like to see an easing of constraints on enjoyable activities, and more opportunities for activities to engage in.”

Jackie Brock, chief executive of charity Children in Scotland, warns that cutting lunchtimes to the bare minimum required to “shovel down a bit of food is really short-sighted”. She wants schools to think about the community they are trying to create, and calls for them to enter into discussions with their pupils and parents about free time.

“Are young people saying they want less time to eat and socialise?” she asks. “Are they saying they want fewer opportunities to take part in creative activities, debating societies and sports? I don’t think so.”

Searson, meanwhile, has another explanation for the cut to lunch breaks in Scotland: in recent years, the hit to school budgets has resulted in supervision at lunchtime falling to school managers, and they have no desire to do it for an hour. “In the old days, you had lunch supervisors who looked after the pupils and it wasn’t left on the doorstep of teachers,” he says. “Now it is left in the hands of senior managers in schools to oversee that - and they don’t want to be doing it for an hour, so they cut it down to the minimum and get their lunch afterwards.”

However, not all teachers are supportive of a return to longer lunches, because the knock-on effect would be a later finish to the school day. Olivia Drennan, a social studies faculty head based in Glasgow, says she gets a 45-minute break three days a week and 40 minutes on the other two days.

The pupils would like a longer lunch, but she believes that most staff prefer the earlier finishing time. “Pupils feel it is too short and it means few extracurricular clubs now run at lunchtime,” says Drennan. “However, the majority of staff prefer a shorter lunch and an earlier finishing time, particularly as many run supported study sessions after school for National 5 and Higher pupils, and it means these can be finished for 4.30pm.

“Personally, I feel it’s a shame that extracurricular clubs are getting less attention due to the pressure to raise attainment via formal supported study and homework clubs. I think debates, sports and so on help give kids a more rounded education and could also help relieve their stress, which should mean they achieve better.”

That is certainly the theory in the independent sector. Students at the High School of Glasgow get just over an hour for lunch - one hour and five minutes to be precise - and at the start of every year the school runs a clubs and societies fair, where there are more than 80 different activities on offer, with senior pupils and staff vying to sign up the younger pupils.

Not all of the activities take place at lunchtime - some run after school - but many do, says the school’s headteacher, John O’Neill. These activities range from musical ensembles to bridge club and chess club.

The school, whose day starts at 8.50am and finishes at 3.45pm, also has 10 minutes for registration every day, a 20-minute assembly and a 20-minute morning break. In a sector often accused of hothousing pupils, that is a lot of downtime, especially when you consider that registration is another slice of time outside of formal lessons that is increasingly coming under threat in the state sector (see box, opposite).

The UCL researchers compared the state and independent sectors in England, and concluded that independent schools had longer break times than state schools, and also ran a wider range of clubs during break times - but not after school.

Like Drennan, O’Neill sees all of this wider activity as being intrinsically linked to attainment. He argues that it creates a culture of participation that pays off when pupils are back in class.

“By S2, a pupil might be in two clubs at lunchtime and spend the other three lunchtimes with their friends kicking a ball about or going to the library to do some extra work or just having some social time chilling out in the courtyard with each other,” says O’Neill. “That’s a critical thing in the school day - that opportunity to be away from the classroom environment, that time to socially engage and relax.

“My view has consistently been that we are trying - through devoting that time and planning to that period and giving children the ability to choose - to create an environment in which participation is the norm, getting involved is the norm, and that just makes school that bit more fun and social. Then when children go into the classroom, they feel more disposed to learning a bit of calculus because they have had some time out for themselves.”

It sounds a lot like Curriculum for Excellence in action, with its ambition to create an education system that was not just about getting pupils through exams but developing rounded individuals.

However, the onus is also clearly on teachers to step up and run the societies and clubs. O’Neill admits - as is the case in a lot of independent schools - that when a teacher joins his school there is “an expectation they will get involved in a club”. The consensus seems to be, though, that this culture went out of the window in the state sector at the time of the teacher strikes in the 1980s, and to a large extent, has never been resurrected.

Scott maintains, however, that there will always be “motivated and inspirational” teachers who have that “incredible commitment”. The critical question, however, is this: are the changes to the way the school day is organised making it increasingly difficult for teachers to find the time and space to share their passion?

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 31 May 2019 issue under the headline “Give us a break”

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