Squeezing breaktimes to fit in more teaching time can rob children of vital opportunities to interact with other youngsters, schools have been warned.
In recent years many schools have reduced their lunch hours and morning and afternoon breaks. Some schools have curtailed breaktimes in an attempt to tackle behaviour problems, but most have been aiming to lengthen the "working week".
Two researchers at London University's Institute of Education who carried out the first national survey of breaktimes earlier this year, however, believe that this trend is unhelpful at a time when children have less scope to mix with their contemporaries out of school.
Peter Blatchford and Clare Sumpner say: "Our research shows that breaktime can be a forum for enjoyment and activity, play and games, the development of friendships, social networks, social skills and competence; the opportunity for independence and freedom from teachers and classrooms; and the management of conflict, aggression and inter-group relations."
They accept that breaktime can be "a site of harassment, cruelty and domination" and note that the Elton Report in 1989 described the lunchbreak as "the single biggest behaviour-related problem that (staff) face". But they point out that even seemingly negative playground activities, such as teasing and name-calling, can have important social functions.
Blatchford and Sumpner's survey, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, involved 1,213 primary schools and 256 secondaries. It confirmed that while many schools have lengthened their day over the past five years, there has been a tendency to shorten the lunchbreak and abolish the afternoon break.
"We calculate that breaktime, as a percentage of the school day, takes up 24 per cent, 21 per cent and 18 per cent at the infant, junior and secondary school stages respectively," say Blatchford and Sumpner, who will present their full findings at the British Educational Research Association conference in Lancaster next week.
The survey also provides detailed information on breaktime supervision arrangements, but it is a second study that Blatchford and Sumpner conducted in inner London which has underlined the social importance of breaktimes.
The researchers interviewed the same pupils aged 7, 11 and 16 and documented their perspectives on breaktimes and teasing, fighting, bullying and friendships. "We have found that it is at breaktime that children develop a distinctive and vibrant culture, separate from the school culture, and not easily recognised by adults," they say.
Recent research in Australia and the United States has also illustrated how the reduction of breaktime may inadvertently affect traditional pupil freedoms. "The danger is that we may recognise the value of breaktime to pupils long after changes have severely altered or reduced it," Blatchford and Sumpner say.