Children are missing out on opportunities to make friends, socialise and exercise after school break times have been cut by as much as an hour over the past two decades, research finds.
The study, by University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Education, warns of a near “virtual elimination” of afternoon breaks, especially in secondary schools, and shorter lunch breaks.
One in four secondary schools now leave only 35 minutes or less for lunch, the research reveals.
Schools have been shortening breaks to create more time for learning amid pressures, researchers say. Funding cuts and a bid to tackle bad behaviour may also have contributed.
Academics argue that children do not have enough time to socialise or exercise, which they call worrying amid concerns about the mental health of young people and childhood obesity.
Comparing data from 1,133 primary and secondary schools in 2017 with data collected in 2006 and 1995, researchers looked at how school breaks and young people’s social lives have changed.
At key stage 1 in primary school, where children are aged five to seven, pupils now have 45 minutes less break time per week than children of the same age in 1995.
Meanwhile, pupils at key stage 3 and 4 (aged 11 to 16) have 65 minutes less than two decades ago.
Lead author Dr Ed Baines, of the UCL Institute of Education, pointed out that children barely have enough time to “queue up and to eat their lunch”, let alone have time for socialising or physical exercise.
He said: “Despite the length of the school day remaining much the same, break times are being squeezed even further, with potential serious implications for children’s wellbeing and development.
“Not only are break times an opportunity for children to get physical exercise – an issue of particular concern given the rise in obesity – but they provide valuable time to make friends and to develop important social skill, experiences that are not necessarily learned or taught in formal lessons.”
The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, also reveals that children are now only half as likely to meet up with friends and peers in person outside of school as in 2006.
Three-fifths of the schools that responded to the national postal survey reported withholding breaks from children when they or their classmates have been poorly behaved or need to complete work.
On the reasons behind the trend, Dr Baines added: “The main reasons school leaders give for the shortening break times are to create more time for learning and to cover the curriculum.
“In light of pressures on schools year-on-year to improve standards, this is maybe not surprising.
“There may also be financial reasons for the reductions and also that schools may see it as a way to limit poor behaviour that sometimes occurs during break times.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said school timetables are “bursting at the seams” amid pressure to deliver a huge amount of learning and to prepare children for high-stakes tests.
He said: “It is therefore no surprise that school break times are shorter than they were 20 years ago.
“This may be regrettable but it is the result of a conscious decision by successive governments to expect more of schools.”
Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, said the research highlights a “very worrying trend”. He added: “As concern for the mental health and wellbeing of school children grows, break times have got shorter.
“Working adults are entitled to breaks to improve productivity so it is surprising school age children do not have equivalent rights.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “Schools are certainly teaching a more challenging curriculum, and budget cuts mean that resources are stretched, which may also be contributing to fewer or shorter break times.”
He added: “It all points to a system under incredible strain at the moment. It seems that very little could be done to remedy any of this without new money from the Treasury.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government has given all schools the autonomy to make decisions about the structure and duration of their school day.
“However, we are clear that pupils should be given an appropriate break and we expect school leaders to make sure this happens.
“We recognise the importance of physical activity in schools to improve both physical and mental wellbeing.
“That is why our Childhood Obesity strategy reflects the chief medical officer’s guidelines that primary age children should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day.”
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