Looking for a new Lunchtime

Pre-pandemic we had playtimes of a quarter hour long both morning and afternoon, with all 480 pupils outside at the same time. We operated fairly strict rotas for all the fixed equipment (on Shore Lane, The Draken, The Slide, Lower Playground Climbing Frame, Table Tennis Tables, and The Slope). With four pitches and sets of posts on the lower playground, we had a pitch per year group with a rota for which class from each got to play there. And then, to limit injuries, exclusion of groups and aggressive play from excessive football, we had a rota of activities by day of the week (football being limited to one day only).

Lunchtime was staggered back then (so the pandemic response of staggering activity to limit mixing was not entirely new to us) by 20 minutes for two year groups. For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, Year 3 and Year 5 started lunch break at 11:55 with Year 4 and Year 6 starting 20 minutes later. The lunch period was 55 minutes long for each half of the school, with the whole stretching over 1 hour 15 minutes.

To eliminate mixing we adapted slightly and introduced single age group playground use – four playtimes over the day, and a stagger at lunchtime that meant only one year group on a playground at a time. With a gap between each stagger, it meant playtimes ran to 90 minutes in total (from 30 previously). Lunchtimes ran out at 90 minutes in total (from 75 previously). Those numbers are why teaching staff have been concerned about the loss of hall and playground time to fulfil our commitment to the PE Pledge – to offer a minimum of 2 hours per week of quality PE and Sports activity for every child. (Though we did gain by having ‘assembly’ virtually, and by coming to school in PE kit on relevant days. And playtimes only took out the playgrounds – we could still use the Hall for indoor PE.)

As children had the same overall time out for breaks they did not notice a drop in activity opportunity. Staff had more ‘duty’ periods (with twice the number of playtimes each day) so this was a drain. There were far, far fewer accidents and injuries, due to having only half the children outside at any one time. There were also far, far fewer fall-outs and friendships issues. Staff had far less opportunity to meet – lunchtime was shortened by 10 minutes and some year groups did not overlap at all (Year 5 ended lunch as Year 6 began theirs). With 45 minutes needed to fit in two breaks and a gap in-between each afternoon it made for some inefficient timings – the last part of the day was insubstantial for two year groups.

Having considered all that (and more – the working hours of lunchtime staff, the availability of first aid, the ability of the kitchen to batch cook and keep fresh hot food for a bigger stagger, queueing, some children feeling rushed, some wanting to finish more quickly and get out to play sooner) we are adopting a hybrid model in September.

We will keep single year group playtimes, morning and afternoon. These will be kept to 15 minutes each, and have no gap in between. The lines of cones, splitting each playground in two, have gone already – children will be free to mix across the year group.

We think this will keep pupil activity up, and accident numbers down. We appreciate the need for cover stays higher but the benefits, we think, out weight this cost. We will remove all the rotas except the restriction on which year group uses which playground. Simple, straightforward, movable, fair, minimum impact on playground availability for PE.

We will morph lunchtimes – one stagger, but of half an hour. This will, we hope, avoid excessive queuing and free a playground for PE.

It returns lunchtime to 55 minutes, and means that those children who love to ‘eat and go’ (some can eat in 3 minutes and be out on the playground before the last class has emerged from their classroom) are not held up. Staff get a period each day of overlap, and longer to mark, reset and have their own lunch break. Lunchtime staff will be working more like their full hours, but in two teams (rather than the four they have had for the last year).

It will mean having 240 children sharing a single playground (and the associated play equipment) each lunch break, and that is where the risk lies.

Years 3 and 4 will go first, at 11:45 – reckoning on the older children being generally more able to last another half hour until lunch.

They will then share a playground. Year 5 and 6 will come to lunch at 12:15. We expect that the first queues will be well gone by the time Y5 & Y6 come through.

The children, apart from the very first year group in, will have to mix at each table, both in year groups and packed lunch / school dinner. We used to do this (at Freddie’s request), and it worked fine.

I expect that the first few days will be difficult as staff and children alike try to adjust to a new way of things. I will studiously avoid making an abrupt response or reversion – I will want to give time for new Year 3 children to learn the ways of a new school, and for everyone else to settle in. However, this is not a plan set in stone and it may have to change again, to try to get the best out of the opportunity for change.

A couple of parents asserted that their children were unduly pressured to eat up and move out of the hall at lunchtime, as we tried to force all the children through. There are options:

  • giving as long as wanted to eat, which runs the risk of never-ending lunchtimes and children with a school dinner having nowhere to sit;
  • eating packed lunches in classrooms, which limits who gets to sit with who and risks food mess in all the wrong places;
  • encouraging children to go home at lunch time, running the risk of late returns and lost learning;
  • arguing that it wasn’t so, which is likely only to annoy;
  • ensuring a rolling rota so no class or year group is always first / last, which is likely to fail when random chance works its magic;
  • adding more seats in the hall, which adds to noise, stress and discomfort in other ways;
  • continue to seek a balance between encouraging a focus on eating and allowing socialising.


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