Breaktime cuts means less play in the day

School breaktimes are as much as an hour shorter than they were two decades ago, meaning children are missing out on opportunities to play, make friends, develop social skills and exercise. Education Business examines what schools can do to ensure playtime is a critical part of the school day

According to a new study by UCL Institute of Education, school break times are as much as an hour shorter than they were two decades ago.  
The research looked at how school breaks and young people’s social lives have changed over 25 years, comparing data from over 1,000 primary and secondary schools in 2017 to data collected in 2006 and 1995.
The study showed that children at Key Stage 1 (five to seven years of age) now have 45 minutes less break time per week than children of the same age in 1995 and pupils at Key Stage 3 and 4 (11 to 16 years) have 65 minutes less.
The researchers found that there has been an almost ‘virtual elimination’ of afternoon breaks, with only 15 per cent of children in Key Stage 2 and just over half of Key Stage 1 children having an afternoon break. In 1995, 13 per cent of secondary schools reported an afternoon break period. Now only one per cent of secondary schools report having one.
Lunch breaks have also been cut down. In 1995, just a third of secondary schools (30 per cent) reported lunch breaks of less than 55 minutes. Now, that figure has risen to 82 per cent. Furthermore, a quarter of secondary schools reported lunchtimes of 35 minutes or less.
As well as having less time for breaks, nearly 60 per cent of schools also withhold breaks from children when they or their classmates have been poorly behaved or need to complete work.
Squeezing free time

Lead author, Dr Ed Baines (Department of Psychology and Human Development) 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 well-being 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 skills – experiences that are not necessarily learned or taught in formal lessons.”
“Whereas at one time afternoon breaks were a daily experience for nearly all primary school children, now they are increasingly a thing of the past. And there has also been a decline in lunch breaks, which is of particular concern,” added Dr Baines.
“Children barely have enough time to queue up and to eat their lunch, let alone have time for other things like socialising, physical exercise, or exploring self-chosen activities.”
The researchers found that pupils were overwhelmingly positive about taking breaks (particularly longer lunch breaks), with 87 per cent of children saying they ‘liked’ or ‘really like’ them. Just five per cent of children said they did not like break times.
Pupils at primary and secondary levels valued breaks first and foremost for the opportunity they provide to socialise with friends. They also valued the opportunity for some free time, and the chance to choose what they wanted to do and engage in playful activities.
School staff said the breaks gave children the opportunity to get some physical exercise, fresh air and something to eat.

After the school day

Most primary pupils, but only a minority of secondary school pupils, attended after-school clubs and clubs outside of school. There has been a marked decline in the attendance of after-school and out-of-school clubs in the 10 years since the previous survey in 2006. The types of clubs attended include sports and music, and out-of-school youth organisations, such as Brownies, Scouts.
Most pupils, particularly older students, reported that they go straight home after school.
Children are half as likely to meet up with friends in person after school, with 31 per cent of children reporting that they seldom get to meet peers and friends compared to 15 per cent in 2006.
Watching TV or playing on devices without friends physically present is now the principle after school activity.  
These findings highlight that school is increasingly the main, and in some cases, the only context where young people get to socialise directly with peers and friends of their own age.


The report makes a series of recommendations for schools to consider.
The time available for breaks should be assessed to ensure that pupils in both primary and secondary schools have adequate breaks in the day. This should include a lunch time that allows reasonable time for pupils to meet with friends, collect and eat a meal, and some free time for self-chosen activities, whether this is play, participating in a club or socialising freely with friends and peers.
Schools should aim to develop a policy on breaks in the school day. While breaktimes make up around 20 per cent of the school day, they are overlooked, and this is reflected in the lack of school policy. A school policy should cover their nature and  length, their staffing and training for break time supervision, making clear what the school hopes pupils will gain from breaks and how it is perceived that these times support children’s development, learning and wellbeing.
Schools should work with pupils to enable them to have a say on break times, the activities and clubs on offer and how the outdoor space is set up, resourced and decorated. There are a number of organisations that provide useful advice on, and support for, improving opportunities during breaktimes. Secondary schools, in particularly, should also try innovative ideas to enrich the quality  of breaktimes for pupils. Schools should consider providing adult led clubs/ extended learning opportunities as part of the school day or after school rather than during break times.
Schools should reconsider the practice of withholding break time as punishment or for pupils to use it to complete work, especially if this is routinely used. There is evidence that this approach is likely to be counter-productive to children’s well-being generally. It is also important to note that although there appears to be no legislation requiring that pupils are allowed time for a break, article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory, states that children have a right to play. Schools should consider alternative, constructive ways of motivating and sanctioning pupils and enabling them to finish academic work rather than withholding breaktimes.

Supervisor training

The training of supervisors should be reviewed to ensure they support, manage and facilitate positive and constructive breaktime experiences. Training should ensure that staff know how to manage everyday problems that can arise during breaks in an inclusive and strategic fashion.
Policy makers should consider legislating for time for pupils to have breaks. Working adults, including teachers have a right to breaks but there is no equivalent policy for pupils. Legislation should convey an average expectation that ensures all pupils have regular and sustained periods of break time everyday to undertake activities of their own choosing, with peers and in an outdoor space for the purpose of play, recreation and social development.
Co-author professor Peter Blatchford, from the Department of Psychology and Human Development, said: “We believe that schools should carefully consider the time available for breaks and refrain from cutting them further. Policy makers should also consider legislating for time for pupils to have adequate breaks – whereas working adults, including teachers have a right to breaks, there is no equivalent policy for pupils.”
Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, the organisation that funded the research, said: “School break time is the sort of issue that easily falls below the radar, but this research – spanning two decades – sheds light on a very worrying trend. As concern for the mental health and well-being 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. We hope that the report’s findings and recommendations will encourage policy makers to take action to ensure pupils have adequate breaks during the school day.”


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