'My twins only get half an hour for lunch. The school says this is for discipline reasons. Can we do anything to get a longer break?'
First, tell yourselves that you are right to be worried. We don't like chickens being reared without being able to feed, breathe and stretch. Why is it OK for children?
Lunch times are for unwinding, eating properly, socialising, going to clubs and getting fresh air. Yet, worryingly, 13 per cent of secondary schools now give pupils only half an hour for lunch, and more than half give pupils less than an hour. And this change is being sneaked in without consultation with either pupils or parents. Some schools say it's because they can't find lunchtime supervisors. More cite playground problems as the reason for the change.
Yet good discipline does not come from denying children time to be themselves. It comes from helping them to develop respect for themselves and others, within a clear framework of expected behaviour, with quick, effective sanctions for those who spoil things for others. It isn't difficult to put in place. Much has been written about how to do it, and good schools make it work every day.
Your twins' school is telling its pupils that they expect them to behave badly and that they are being locked in their classrooms to prevent such behaviour. If pupils respond by acting even worse, who can blame them?
Find out what other parents and pupils think, then ask to see the head and raise these issues. If he or she won't even discuss them, think about whether you want your children to stay in that sort of school.
I'd advocate doing everything you can to help the school discipline system. I'm not in education, so this isn't from another teacher's point of view; it's from a mum who thinks that maybe our kids should be a bit tougher and stop the whinging. School's only a six-hour day. So they have to comply with a restricted lunchtime – so what? It's not exactly workhouse conditions, is it?
Stephanie Acton, Cheshire
Half an hour is an adequate amount of time to eat lunch. Your children can socialise at breaks and after school. A school timetable must be adhered to in order to fit in all the necessary requirements of a busy school day, and cannot be run to the whims of individual pupils. You would no doubt be the first to complain if your twins were falling behind due to lack of teaching time in the classroom. It is essential at this age for pupils to develop a certain amount of "self-discipline", this being an essential life skill.
In coming years, as your children's problems become more involved, you will need the full advice and support of their school. So save your interventions for the truly important issues rather than alienate the staff at such an early stage. It is essential that children see their parents working with the school rather than against it.
Julie Earnshaw, Leeds
Suggest to the school that if it really wants to get on top of its discipline problems, it should cut out lunchtime altogether.
Craig Wiley, Essex
Next Week's Quandary
Dear Hilary, I have been thinking about teaching computer skills to adults, but I've been told that I need a special teaching qualification to do this. Is this true? If so, why? Teaching adults is surely quite different from teaching children. It must put so many people off wanting to pass on their skills to other adults.
Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 4 February, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition