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35 minutes – the reality of school lunchtime

Ever-shorter breaks hit extracurricular activities and even staff relationships, says union leader

35 minutes – the reality of school lunch breaks

Scottish secondary teachers are set to vote tomorrow on whether to lobby councils to re-instate the traditional lunch hour in order to improve the “health and well-being of teachers and pupils”.

On Friday, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) begins its annual congress in Crieff and will debate a motion calling for councils to restore the lunch break in schools to 60 minutes.

According to Catherine Nicol – the SSTA’s incoming vice-president, who is proposing the motion – the curtailing of the school lunch period has been prompted due to budget cuts and the lack of staff now available to supervise the break.

The theory, she said in an interview with Tes Scotland, was that shortening the lunch break meant “less opportunity for pupils to cause bother” or “for harm to come to them”.

However, Ms Nicol said the impact was also the creation of "an eat quick and get out of the dinner hall" culture, with less time for staff and pupils to eat and digest and a feeling that pupils, in particular, were being pushed into choosing less healthy food they could eat “on the go”.  

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Ms Nicol – a science teacher based in North Ayrshire – said that lunch in her own authority’s secondaries was now just 40 minutes. However, she added, that many Scottish schools were effectively having lunch breaks that were just 35 minutes long because a warning bell rang five minutes before the official end of lunch.

The shorter lunch period also meant less time for extracurricular activities and socialising, she added. The norm now was for teachers to have “hurried conversations between mouthfuls of food” with their colleagues and that was impacting on their ability to form “supportive relationships”.

Ms Nicol added: “There is less time to have an in-depth discussion about learning and teaching or to share news about family life. This may have led to a feeling that teachers are less likely to fully develop supportive relationships, people do not have time to sit, chat about life and shoot the breeze. Neither do the kids, some think that this is leading to children not developing conversational social skills. ”

She added: “Finally, the reduction in time for lunch has could be responsible for a lessening in the number of extra curricular activities that can be offered.

"Teachers and pupils who volunteer need to eat and visit the loo. They need to spend enough time on their chosen activity to make it a worthwhile experience. There is no fun in it if you have to watch the clock so you can get started and finished before the afternoon merry-go-round starts again." 

Researchers in England last week revealed that in 1995, less than a third of secondary schools (30 per cent) reported lunch breaks of less than 55 minutes. Now, that figure had risen to 82 per cent, they said, with a quarter of secondary schools reporting lunchtimes of 35 minutes or less.

The researchers also found that the afternoon break in schools had been all but wiped out.

The researchers from the UCL Institute of Education are now calling on the Westminster government to legislate in order to guarantee pupils adequate breaks.

The SSTA motion states: “Congress calls on [local authorities body] Cosla to re-establish a 60-minute lunch break as a measure to improve the working environment and health and wellbeing of teachers and pupils.”

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