Are teachers' lunch breaks under threat now, too?

We've all adapted to new timetables this year – but we need to make sure our lunch breaks aren't lost, says Clare Owen

Clare Owen

Covid and schools: Are teachers' lunch breaks under threat?

Lunch: that brief pause in a busy, fretful day. The chance to catch up, sort out or just breathe.

Something needs preparing for the afternoon? You can do it at lunch. A few more books need marking? Ditto. Just need a brief period of respite? Yep, lunch has got that covered

But will it have it covered when we return in September?

Many schools have, out of necessity, needed to alter their timetable during the pandemic. Staggered starts and shifting breaks and lunchtimes have helped to protect the integrity of year-group bubbles to the greatest extent possible. 

We’ve all adapted. We’ve had to. But there are staff and students tired of having a late-morning lunch and an extended afternoon session of split classes, and insufficient time to do what needs to be done.

School lunch breaks: The value of non-lesson time

Non-lesson time is important. It’s not just about having a break of reasonable length at lunchtime. Break and lunch aren’t simply routine pauses in learning. 

For students, they provide a regular opportunity to see friends in a safe environment – something we know they’ve missed out on over the pandemic. 

They also offer a transition from the sedentary to the active, and the opportunity for learning beyond the classroom: communicating, improving social interaction, negotiating and turn-taking. These are the soft skills that we want them to develop but that we can’t teach in the way we can subject-specific knowledge. That makes lunchtime invaluable. 

For teachers, it’s the downtime we need, not just to run errands and tie up loose ends but to engage with our colleagues, talk through issues. It provides an outlet in a busy day. These are vital issues to consider if we’re to do anything about teacher retention. 

Plus, we all know that actually eating, drinking and going to the toilet take time – time we can’t take elsewhere in the day. Too many teachers already don’t eat lunch at all. A lunch break long enough to allow us to do all these things is crucial.

Shorter, more controlled lunches can mean fewer behavioural problems to deal with. At first glance, that’s an appealing option. But while behavioural problems may be limited, they are not solved. This means that those existing difficulties, ineffectively addressed, are likely to remain, demanding more of our attention (and subsequently more of our time) later on. 

Better behaviour requires a concerted, consistent effort to administer school rules, certainly. But it also benefits from the cultivation of a community ethos, and from staff taking the time to develop positive working relationships with students, where boundaries and consequences are clear – as are expectations – in an environment of nurturing and respect. 

The importance of extracurricular activities

And limiting lunch can cause further issues. Too short a lunch break means there’s the risk that not all students will have the opportunity to spend time with their friends, or even get and eat their lunch, potentially exacerbating negative attitudes towards school. 

There are benefits to a longer lunch in terms of learning and equity, too. Breaks are good for concentration. Just like the staff with whom they work, students become tired through the school day. Breaks in work help to ensure students’ (and staff’s) mental resources have a period of recuperation, lessening any decrease in performance as the day wears on. More specifically, when students engage in physical exercise during breaks, cognitive function improves.

Then there’s the cultural capital issue. It’s difficult to run clubs and activities at lunchtime if time is limited. This doesn’t encourage participation, and prevents schools from positively engaging with disadvantaged or vulnerable students, who could benefit enormously from extracurricular activities. 

Extracurricular activities during the school day are particularly important, as some young people have additional family responsibilities that they must attend to outside school. It’s too easy to be lured by the appeal of limiting behavioural infractions at the expense of additional opportunities to improve equity.

Over the past 25 years, students and staff have already lost a considerable period of non-lesson time during the school day. The UCL Institute of Education School break and lunch times and young people’s social lives study, published in 2019, demonstrates how, between 1995 and 2017, primary students lost 40-45 minutes of breaktime each week. In secondary schools, the difference is even greater, with a loss of 65 minutes of breaktime each week. 

Of course, we need to cover the curriculum. But if we fail to ensure that students (and staff) have the opportunity to have meaningful time away from formal learning, are we really working in the best interests of refreshing all so that we improve engagement? We want everyone to be more productive – not less so because we’ve made assumptions and failed to recognise the importance of breaks. 

So what will be the ruling come September? New systems may have worked well for some schools, and a more flexible approach could be welcomed. But those responsible for making these decisions must consult staff and students if we’re to start off on the right foot in the new school year. 

The amount of time we have for lunch matters. Given what’s happened over the past two years, let’s be more proactive in thinking beyond the apparent advantages and see how we can employ breaktimes to better benefit staff and students. After the year we’ve had, we all need a decent break.

Clare Owen is a secondary teacher in South London

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