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Talk is dish of the day

"Let's do lunch, sir," is how pupils greet headteacher Peter Baddeley since it was decided that children should sit with school staff in the dining room to learn conversational skills at the table.

Now that TV dinners and "grazing" have largely replaced traditional meal times, teachers and support staff at St Luke's CE primary school, Heywood, Lancashire, have decided to sit with pupils to create a "family table" during lunch breaks.

Mr Baddeley, who is proving the most popular choice among pupils, said:

"Fewer families are meeting on a regular basis to eat round the table. It is a national issue, and certainly not confined to our school. Children are missing out on those conversations with adults that we feel are very important. It is where they learn their language skills."

The scheme is not compulsory, but Mr Baddeley has lunch with pupils every day.

"It is exhausting being the most popular choice but you get a lot of insights you would not normally get," he said. "Pupils share all sorts of things about themselves and their family life."

Whether the children's stories can always be believed is another matter. "I do get children asking to say prayers for their grandma who has died, and at the end of the day she is waiting for them outside school," he said.

Parenting website Raisingkids.co.uk questioned more than 2,000 parents last year and found that one in five families ate meals together only once a week. Most that regularly ate together watched TV at the same time.

Professor Julie Dockrell of the psychology and human development department at the University of London's institute of education, said: "In schools there is little time for pupils to use language usefully, so this is a good development. You can have family meals where no discussion takes place, yet children can sit round a television and have discussions about what is being said."

Gail Oldham, literacy co-ordinator at St Luke's, said: "We often have a laugh with the children, and they learn how to speak in an informal setting, when to speak and when to hold back."

Teachers also joke with parents and grandparents who may join the "family table".

Mr Baddeley said: "A woman with three grandchildren at the school came in and said there used to be corporal punishment when she was at school. I said it was only children we couldn't slap and she had better eat her greens. I was a bit taken aback when she said I could slap her on the bottom anytime. Later, my midday supervisor told me the grandmother was cJulie Goodyear who played Bet Lynch in Coronation Street."

* stephen.lucastes.co.uk

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