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The significance of school breaktimes

Researchers: Professor Peter Blatchford | Dr Ed Baines

Project overview

School breaktimes are getting shorter despite pupils and teachers recognising them as an important opportunity for physical exercise and socialising.

The vast majority of both primary and secondary pupils view lunchbreaks as a positive part of the school day, yet over half of secondary schools now have a lunch break of 54 minutes or less, compared to under a third in 1995.

Furthermore, the number of schools providing an afternoon break has continued to decline, with 96% of secondary schools now having no afternoon break at all.

A postal survey, developed in consultation with an advisory group and head teachers, was completed by 1,566 schools in England and Wales, giving a sample of 7% of all primary schools and 6% of all secondary schools. In addition, 1,344 questionnaires were completed by students in years 5, 8 and 10 from a nationally representative sub-sample of these schools.

Key findings include:

  • Primary schools teachers and pupils were more likely to value breaktime as an opportunity for exercise, socialising and having a break, whereas secondary schools expressed a more functional view and valued the free time, relaxation in between lessons and the chance to eat and drink offered by breaktimes.
  • The poor behaviour of some pupils was identified by both schools and pupils as the main problem with breaktime. Pupils’ other concerns were not having enough to do at breaktime and ball games getting in the way, as well as not having enough space.
  • Almost half of primary schools said that breaktime behaviour had improved in the last five years, although this was reduced to a quarter for secondary schools. Both primary and secondary schools believed that behaviour outside school had declined since 2001.
  • Levels of supervision at breaktime have not increased since 1995 despite expansion in the number of support staff in schools. The ratio of teachers and support staff to pupils was three times higher in primary schools than secondary. Primary school support staff were more likely to receive formal training and support.
  • Nearly all schools reported that they organise clubs and activities for pupils during breaktimes and before and after school.
  • The majority of schools thought their school grounds were adequate for breaktime activities and supervision, although secondary schools and pupils were more likely to express dissatisfaction.

In 2016 we funded the same researchers to conduct a follow-up survey of school breaktimes.


  • Professor Peter Blatchford
    Institute of Education
  • Dr Ed Baines
    Institute of Education

  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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