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Whatever happened to the lunch hour?

There was a time when the lunch hour was just that, but the time pupils and teachers have to themselves in the middle of the day has been steadily eaten away. In National School Meals Week, Neil Sears visits two comprehensives that have drastically cut their midday breaks

Lunch hour is a phrase that no longer has any meaning at Beau-champ College in Leicestershire. In fact, if your lunch box is too generous, or your rock cakes are too hard, you may well find yourself still eating when the bell has gone and your mates are back in class. And forget any notions you may have of getting into a long game of football to let off steam.

Beauchamp College's 1,650 students, aged from 14 to 18, have just 25 minutes to cram down their midday meal. At 12.35pm lunch begins - and at 1pm precisely it's all over.

Principal Margaret Cruikshank insists that there are no major problems with the tightness of this timetable. Even so, the policy is controversial; there are some students and parents who claim things have gone too far and that some children have been known to eat in the toilets. Although the management denies that its students are being forced to lunch in the lavatories, school administrator Brian Carmichael admits that space has been at a premium since the old 50-minute lunch break was slashed in half.

"There's not enough room for everyone to sit down at once," he concedes. "But most of the students would not sit down and eat even before we introduced the shorter break. Tables are put out in the school hall and some of the classrooms are open. There are also wide window ledges and heaters that are more or less like table tops. There's a variety of places they can use. But some of them don't bother to sit down, and just stand around talking in groups. They flock to certain areas, and they get crowded: they're creatures of habit really."

And what sort of creatures are these habits turning these young people into? Forced to stake out their claim on a window ledge, before bolting down their sandwich, they're learning to fend for themselves - after a fashion.

But they are certainly not learning the habit of good table manners, and you can bet your lunch box they are not chewing every mouthful 100 times before swallowing. And what about the simple courtesies learned by sitting around a table with your peers, passing the salt and pepper and water jug? And where have lunchtime hobbies gone?

Under the pressures of modern life, those lunch-time lessons of the past seem to have gone the way of the leisurely three-course lunch once so beloved of British businessmen. Just as lunch at the average office is now more likely to consist of a sandwich at the desk rather than a relaxing break in the local pub, school lunch hours are beginning to shrink.

And the reasons aren't solely economic. Beauchamp College says it was driven to introduce its 25-minute lunch break largely due to external pressures. Says Mr Carmichael: "Around lunch time we were attracting some inappropriate visitors to the college - young adults who were seeking to associate with the female population here, and people who use or trade in drugs.

"We were also having a problem with the behaviour of our own students in the local area. We decided that we probably couldn't keep all of them on the campus throughout the lunch hour. Instead, the lunch break was shortened to allow us to keep the students on campus, so we could cut down on the opportunities for them to get into mischief."

And, despite the claims of critics, Mr Carmichael insists that the dinner-time dash is working fine. "There's not too much of a problem," he says. "There's a limited amount of hot food, and, as the head is promoting healthy eating, we only serve chips once a week. It's mostly sandwiches, fruit and that kind of thing - so it doesn't take that long to eat.

"Students can buy food at break time and eat at lunch time, and we now have 14 or 15 serving points and five queues so we can get them through fast. It's made a big difference to the school day. Going home at 2.45pm is a great incentive."

It was just that desire for a shorter "continental day" that has inspired other schools to cut their midday break. Set amid the rolling hills of Rutland, Uppingham Community College, also in Leicestershire, said goodbye to a full lunch hour eight years ago. Blessed with growing numbers but with a dining hall seating fewer than 100 at a time, the college was forced to develop a system that got its 685 pupils, agedfrom 11 to 16, through its under-sized dining hall in 45 minutes.

With a bit of sleight of hand, four fast-moving sittings and an eagle-eyed teacher on duty in the hall to ensure pupils leave their places the very second they have completed their meals, everyone seems to be fed by the end of the allotted time.

Uppingham's deputy principal, Peter Laxton, confesses that staff and pupils occasionally grumble about the swiftness of the process, but he is proud of the system that allows them all to go home early. So how do they manage to feed almost 700 students in 45 minutes?

"Part of the secret is that we have a break time from 10.40 to 11am," Mr Laxton explains. "Apart from hot set dinners, everything else is on sale at break time. Many of the kids eat burgers at break."

Hundreds of the young people do, however, insist on eating lunch at lunch time; the dining hall now has a hot food serving point at one end, serviced by two tills, and a sandwich bar at the other, along with a series of automatic machines. Everything is designed to pack the students in - and pack them out.

"You eat and you're out," says Mr Laxton. "For those kids who want to play football or other sports, they have their lunch and, whoosh, they're gone. Most of the kids get into the habit of it, but we have a member of staff on duty to stop any kids from hanging around: it's not a social area where you should sit and chat.

"When we were a 450-pupil school there was a very rigid rule that you didn't leave your seat until you had wiped your place. Now pressure of time means that you eat your lunch off a tray, and don't hang around."

Some of us may treasure the chats we had over lumpy custard during school lunch hour - and even see them as a valuable part of our upbringing. But Mr Laxton claims the price of a long lunch time is just too high.

"Schools get vandalised at lunch times," he says. "If you've got 700 students who have an hour and 20 minutes free, what do they do in that time? Those who are keen on sport may get out on the fields or the tennis courts, but after 45 minutes or so, or if it's wet, most kids will just kick over their tracks or wander around bored stupid.

"It's those children with no hobbies or interests who cause the problems - they used to roam the corridors ripping loo roll holders off walls and setting off fire extinguishers."

To help prevent students from getting bored, Uppingham's Year 11 pupils have their own youth centre complete with pool table, booming stereo and snack bar. Younger students pile into the computer room, where their industrious playing of on-screen chess and other games are monitored by a member of staff. The library is also well-used.

"I really feel that the short lunch hour is a bonus for a school," says Mr Laxton. "The short break makes the day quick and snappy: most school problems and the worst lessons occur in the extended afternoons up to 4pm. We have the majority of our teaching time in the morning.

"Also, with a long lunch hour it can be difficult to get staff to do lunchtime duties. Here we have staff duties broken down to just 20 minutes, and staff are happy to do it."

But surely the shorter break prevents pupils from taking part in extra-curricular activities? Mr Laxton insists not. The shorter days are compensated for by a compulsory one-hour late stay for every pupil once a week, in which they opt to take part in sporting, musical, or other purposeful activities. And the good news for teachers is that these "extra-curricular" activities take place in their contracted hours of work, rather than in their own time.

The pupils of Uppingham, however, are not quite so convinced. "You get thrown out of the dinner hall as soon as you're finished," complains Danielle Peirce, 14. "I'd rather have longer," agrees her friend Laura Bates, 13. "You're not allowed to let your food down." "It's worst when you're on last sitting and you have to do PE straight after," says Rachel Watson, 14. "You have to go running round a track and you can get indigestion."

Even Mr Laxton has to confess that not all the staff are delighted. "Some enjoy a short, sharp day," he says. "But some think 'My God! We don't have time to breathe. You can't pop out, you can't see students, then have a leisurely lunch'."

He adds, too, that the reduction of time spent over social eating in all areas of life is something that we should all be addressing. But schools are far from the only culprits.

"Maybe you could argue that society has a problem," he concedes. "Children don't sit down with their families for meals any more in the evening or at weekends. And we're all under a lot more pressure these days."

Sadly, he's right. The day can surely not be too far away when PE will be combined with lunch time, and the rush for the lunch queue will be launched not by a bell but by the stentorian tones of the athletics master. On your marks, get set I lunch!

Uppingham: the 'continental day'

8.30am School starts - and students go directly into their first two lessons.

10.40 Morning break - hundreds of students take the chance to eat school burgers, more healthy school fare, or their own sandwiches.

11.00 Third lesson of the day.

11.55 Lesson ends - and while most of the school goes into the mid-day assembly, one year group a day goes to early lunch to reduce the pressure with a special early sitting.

12.10pm Lunch proper begins - and hundreds of pupils stream into the small dining room over three rigidly controlled sittings. Dinner ladies and a staff member scan the tables to spot any malingering diners.

12.53 Two-minute warning bell signals the end of 45-minute "playtime".

12.55 Final two lessons of the day.

2.45 It's not yet 3pm, but school is over - except for those pupils whose day it is to stay for an extra hour to catch up on all those extra-curricular activities they could not cram into lunch time LOST LUNCHES

* At its conference last month, the NUT voted for a responsibility-free lunch hour for every teacher.

* Thirty years ago the School Meals Agreement set down teachers' entitlement to a midday break which meant, in theory, they could refuse to do lunch duty.

* School eating habits have changed, and that's official. New figures show that fewer children are eating hot school meals and more bring packed lunches with them. It all helps to make lunch times shorter.

* Department for Education figures show that just 43 per cent of children ate school meals last year; in 1975 it was almost 70 per cent. But the new government is committed to minimum nutritional standards for school meals.

* Parents' bad memories of school meals, fears over BSE and a growth in vegetarianism and other special diets have all led to lunch boxes overtaking the traditional meal.

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