The school where children decide when to take lunch

26th October 2012 at 01:00
Primary's move to flexible play and break times impresses Ofsted

"If we're working really hard, it's nice to have a break early," said Charlotte-May Tomlinson, 10. "Before, we wouldn't get a chance to finish our work. In our books there would be empty pages that we'd want to fill but we'd never get the chance."

Charlotte-May is referring to a unique experiment taking place in an otherwise perfectly normal primary in Lancashire - Barrowford School in Nelson (pictured above) has thrown away the bell and is letting staff and pupils decide among themselves when to take break and lunchtime.

Headteacher Rachel Tomlinson explained that the idea came from a staff meeting some time ago when they were discussing how best to manage the time before and after breaks.

"Like most schools, we'd find we were either stopping children in mid-flow or just filling in time before lunch," she said. "Our school is growing in numbers and a lot of children's behaviour at dinner time had deteriorated quite significantly - it was difficult to manage behaviour to the level it was managed at all other times of the day.

"We were expecting an inspection and that was one of the issues, then someone said, 'Do we need a dinner time?' So we arranged with the school kitchen to have lunch available between 11.30am and 1.30pm and staff can decide if they want their class to go early or wait until 1pm.

"Teachers live life by the clock and the bell - unless you stop and think about it, it makes sense to continue. But in the real world, nobody else does that," Ms Tomlinson said. "Other adults find it ridiculous that you can only go to the toilet at 10.20am."

The school day is a relatively traditional 9am to 3.30pm, but within that children and staff get 85 minutes of break time each day to use how they want. Lunches are collected from the kitchen and eaten in the classroom - a meal supervisor is assigned to each class.

Worries that all the children might have been let out at once have not come to pass. Similarly, the opposite fear - that children wouldn't get to play with friends in other classes - is easily overcome by ad hoc coordination among staff.

Amy Birkett, a Year 6 teacher, is a big fan. "It's brilliant, one of the best things that has happened in school," she said. "Before, we had 300 children in the playground at once and it was chaos.

"At dinner time, the children having hot dinners go to collect them, and those having packed lunches wait for them to get back. It's like a family meal. I like to sit and eat with my class, but then we will sort out supervision for playtime so that both the teaching assistant and I can have a break."

The changes, which were trialled in the summer term and have become permanent this year, have also impressed inspectors. The anticipated inspection happened at the beginning of term and Ofsted upgraded the school from satisfactory to good, noting that the flexible break times have minimised disruption to learning and helped to maintain good standards of behaviour.

Another fan is Jorge Hiscox, 10. "We still play with our friends in the other Year 6 class," he said. "Mrs Birkett sends us to ask Mr Phillipson if his class is coming out. We have long enough to play two or three games before we go in."

But some experts want to see the scheme pushed in an even more radical direction. "I think the children should be allowed to choose when to have breaks," said David Whitebread, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge and an expert on children's play. "Children make quite sensible decisions when they are given the chance."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today