School breaktimes and play have been exercising policy-makers of late. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood has called on the Government to mandate a minimum amount of time for break and lunch for all children every day. They proposed a statutory minimum break time of 75 minutes.
This advice is unusual because previously policy makers have shown no interest in school break and lunch times, reflected in a complete absence of policy or guidance. But there has also been a lack of knowledge about their basic features, children’s views and experiences, or in what ways break and lunch times may be of value.
Unlike most other aspects of education, there is little national (or international) data on these aspects of the school day, for example, in terms of their length, management or supervision. The only information we have comes from our own Nuffield Foundation funded national surveys undertaken in 1995, 2006 and most recently in 2017. These are unique in that they provide the only systematically collected representative data on the timing and management of breaktimes in primary and secondary schools in the UK and, we think, any part of the world. We now have a very good historical snapshot, over nearly 30 years, of the changes to these times in the school day. These findings are presented in our latest report to the Nuffield Foundation.
So how have break and lunch times changed since the 1990s? And what is their value for children and young people? Are politicians right about a need to legislate a minimum amount of time for breaks? How does the proposed minimum of 75 minutes relate to what children currently receive?
Our latest survey shows there has been a sharp cut in the time pupils receive for breaks. In 2006, we found some decline in their length since 1995. But now breaktimes are being squeezed even further. Children at Key Stage 1 (age 5-7) now have 45 minutes less break time per week than in 1995. Children at Key Stage 2 (7-11 years) have experienced a similar, though slightly smaller, reduction.
However, the situation is far worse in secondary schools (11-16 years), where pupils tend to have a whole 65 minutes less each week for their breaks compared to students in 1995. That is the equivalent of one whole day’s worth of breaks less per week. This decline is due to the virtual elimination of afternoon breaks and increasingly, the marked shortening of lunch breaks. Although afternoon breaks were a daily experience for nearly all primary children, now they are increasingly a thing of the past, only experienced by 15% of children in KS2 and just over half of KS1 children. In 1995, 13% of secondary schools reported an afternoon break period. Now only 1% of secondary schools report having one!
Lunch breaks are also being shortened, particularly in secondary schools. In 1995, 30% of secondary schools reported lunch breaks of less than 55 minutes, now it is 82%. Furthermore, our latest figures show that a quarter of secondary schools have lunchtimes as short as 35 minutes or less. As some of our case studies reveal, this is barely enough time to queue up and to eat a meal, let alone meet or play with friends or participate in enrichment activities.
The main reasons school leaders give for the cuts to break time periods are to create more time for learning, to cover the curriculum, and so that schools can limit the poor behaviour that school staff say often occurs during breaks. These are much the same reasons given for the shortening of breaks reported in earlier surveys and are maybe not surprising in the light of the substantial pressure on schools year-on-year to ‘improve standards’. It is also likely that schools are beginning to reduce breaktimes further as part of a package of efforts to save time and money. This is reflected in concerns about school funding and worries about shortening the school week.
But as we argue in our report, these reductions ignore the value for children of breaks in the school day, both in terms of their mental and physical wellbeing and development but importantly in terms of their social development.
For children breaktimes are very important. As we found in our survey of pupils’ views and experiences of life in and outside of school, they are valued first and foremost as a chance to meet and socialise with friends and to engage in activities of their own choosing. Although sometimes there can be a negative side, and of course the misery caused by bullying has to be dealt with, breaktimes are of social value because children have the chance to find solutions to social difficulties themselves. It is through these experiences of everyday life in school that children learn important social lessons and social skills, in the relative safety of school. In contrast to the concerns of some staff, children have an overwhelmingly positive view about breaktimes.
For many children, breaks in the school day are some of the only times they get to socialise with peers for sustained periods of time. Our earlier survey in 2006 showed that a quarter of pupils in upper primary and secondary school rarely met with their friends in person outside of school (i.e. only at the weekend or less than once per week). In 2017 this had increased to 47%. It is even more surprising that nearly a third of pupils said they saw peers ‘less than once per week’ and that this was not substantially different for older children. This is a startling finding and serves to highlight the central importance of school, and break times in particular, in the social lives of children and young people.
Is it time to legislate for break time?
So how do the average figures on the timing of breaks in our survey relate to the minimum of 75 mins per day recommended by MPs? Currently the youngest children in school (i.e., KS1) get on average 85 minutes and children in Key Stage 2 get 76 minutes. Therefore, breaks in primary schools are at or slightly above the recommended minimum. Nevertheless, these are just the averages, and some children get less. We know that 17% of KS1 pupils and 52% of KS2 pupils already get less than the recommended time. Secondary school students, on the other hand, get a good deal less and with an average of 63 mins this means that approximately 89% of secondary school pupils already get less than the proposed 75 minutes minimum.
It is perhaps then of little surprise that when asked, 60% of adolescents and 45% of Year 5 children felt that breaks were too short and should be made longer.
In our report we recommend that schools should carefully consider the time available for breaks and refrain from cutting them further. Schools could productively work with pupils to improve school breaks in terms of the activities, resources and opportunities available. Given that breaktimes offer huge opportunities for children’s development particularly in the social realm, but also in terms of physical activity, play and wellbeing it is the right time for policy makers to consider legislating for break times in the school day for children and young people.