Few adults would place shorter break times high up their list of concerns about schools. Some of them may have shone at football but many will remember hours spent pointlessly milling around the playground or, worse, smoking in the toilets? For a minority of children, now as then, breaks are dreadful. If you don’t have many friends, or aren’t part of the group you would like to join, the experience of leaving the classroom to spend time with your peers can be demoralising. Worse is the opportunity that gaps between lessons, and relative absence of supervision, can create for fighting or bullying.
But news that breaks have continued to diminish, two decades after researchers first flagged this issue up, is awful. Socialising matters, and it matters that the people in charge of schools think it matters. The facts are that a quarter of English secondary schools now give pupils 35 minutes or less to eat their lunch, while afternoon breaks are close to extinction. Overall, primary children aged five to seven have lost 45 minutes of play time since 1995, while 11- to 16-year-olds have lost over an hour. At the same time, children report having less opportunity to socialise with friends outside school. So we can’t rationalise away these findings with the assumption that play dates have taken the place of play times.
Heightened anxiety surrounding children’s safety, some of it justified, is widely understood to have reduced opportunities for playing outside or unsupervised at weekends and evenings. The attractions of gaming and social media have contributed to a shift in leisure as a whole. Now we know that during the school day, too, some young people have lost the chance to interact with each other: to play games, run around, exchange news.
Rising obesity is perhaps the most obvious objection. Exam stress and mental illness among teenagers are others. But the argument for breaks should not only be about damage limitation. School is for education, but even the most knowledge-focused headteacher knows that social life is an aspect of this. School is where people learn to make friends and rub along with others. It’s during childhood that we develop our characters and interests; our ability to hold and express views. All of this is part of the preparation for adult life.
The researchers point to concerns around standards that incentivise schools to pack in as much formal learning as possible, and fears about behaviour that lead them to view breaks negatively. That the backdrop is a culture in which many people work too many hours with too little time off – adults are entitled to just a 20-minute break during a six-hour work shift – is all the more reason to put right what is clearly going wrong.
People of all ages need a chance to rest, and we should encourage children to grow up regarding this as their right. Most of those surveyed said lunchtimes made them “very happy indeed”. Grown-ups deserve that respite and pleasure too.