Has breaktime become like Christmas - a time eagerly anticipated but seldom enjoyed, asks Gerald Haigh
It seems a pity that although primary schools have started to think carefully about breaktime activities for children - play apparatus, buddy systems, outdoor seating - they have often allowed the adults' recreational time to deteriorate almost to vanishing point.
Many never make it to the staffroom; break has become a time for sorting out the next lesson, maybe with the other teacher in the year group, or hearing a couple of readers. At best, there is a quick dash down for a coffee that may well be taken back to the classroom.
"Our break starts at 10.30," says one primary teacher. "And the end-of-playtime bell on the playground goes at 10.43am so the children can be back in class for 10.45. We have to be out on the playground to collect the children when the bell goes, so our break is at most 12 minutes long.
There isn't time to go to the loo and also have a coffee, and as result everyone just gets irritated."
Part of the problem is that sometimes break is deliberately kept very short, either so that school can finish at a time set down from outside (by a bus company, for example, or to fit in with the local secondary school) or to keep disciplinary troubles to a minimum.
There are other factors, too. In most primaries, there are now more teaching assistants, and consequently more people in staffrooms that may not have been adapted to cope. Then there is the nature of the building.
"I taught in a school where the staffroom was upstairs," recalls a Midlands headteacher. "Hardly anybody made it there at break, so they had tea and coffee in the school office and drove the secretary nuts. In my present school the staffroom's within easy reach, and everybody gets there."
It becomes evident as you talk to teachers that many schools have long-term problems with break which niggle but never move far enough up the priorities to be tackled. It is equally clear that if some of the problems were sorted, and break made into a pleasurable experience for staff, the resulting morale boost would be out of all proportion to the effort involved. Here are some thoughts.
At the very least, take time to think about the timing and length of break, trying yet again to achieve a reasonable balance between the conflicting pressures. If your break is so short that people at the far end of the school never get to the staffroom, then maybe it's time to look again at priorities.
Improve the staffroom. The Midlands head quoted earlier had managed to keep the cost of upgrading the staffroom under control by including it in a more general refurbishment of the admin area.
"It's not very 'schooly', now," she says. "There's a well-equipped kitchen area, with tables you can sit round, and a 'living room' area. We keep it as a place for socialising - no computers, no official publications - and it gets used."
Make sure the drinks service is quick and efficient. This is partly a matter of investing in the right equipment (and getting it properly positioned in the room so that people aren't politely battling each other to get coffee) but it may also be worth employing someone to do the job. It doesn't cost much, for example, to ask one of the lunchtime supervisors or kitchen staff to come in early and do the breaktime drinks and the washing up. Increasing numbers of users may well mean that you can now afford this.
Make sure people who can't come to the staffroom (those on duty for example) are always - but always - served with drinks.
As a head or subject leader, try really hard not to encroach on people's breaktime for official business. Instead, develop a climate in which staff don't feel guilty about taking their break.
Most importantly, as a head, try to see break through the staff's eyes. A primary teacher says: "She (the head) can have coffee whenever she wants.
She forgets that we have just one short opportunity, and even that easily vanishes."
Any thoughts? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org