For poor children, lunch is a rushed butty. For the rich, it’s orchestra and standup
The demise of the state school lunch hour is yet another obstacle to Oxbridge places
There was justifiable outrage recently when the headteacher of £12,000-a-term Stowe School complained that “social engineering” meant Oxford and Cambridge universities were taking fewer kids from private schools.
Schools are social engineering factories; it’s what they are supposed to do. They take children and batch-improve them so they are ready to join society as adults. And as we all know, it is state school pupils who usually battle against the well-oiled social engineering of the rich.
A new example of this arose recently in research from the UCL Institute of Education, which found breaks and lunchtimes in England have been cut since the 1990s, with secondary schools shaving off more than an hour a week. One in four has a lunch break of just 35 minutes, barely enough time to down a butty and a Capri Sun. And forget afternoon breaks – just 1% of secondary and 15% of junior schools indulge in such luxury.
Meanwhile, at St Paul’s, a top private feeder school for Oxbridge, students enjoy a 100-minute lunch in which they can partake in activities such as sports, debating, and – I kid you not – “magic, film-making and standup comedy”.
England’s education system is now so unequal that some pupils are literally having a laugh while others must scurry into lessons.
Why the cut in state schools’ break times? One reason is a desire to cram in more learning. Every politician promises to make children smarter. Achieving such goals pushes schools to increase time spent on formal subjects and cut back on play. Giving up a few minutes of hide and seek in return for better reading and maths is not a daft trade, but as the UCL researchers noted, there’s a potential trade-off with social skills, especially when children spend more time outside school online than face to face with friends.
A second, more insidious reason for the change is a desire to stop behaviour from getting out of hand. Having worked in a school that cut its lunch hour after data showed our most brutal playground fights consistently occurred in the last 10 minutes, I know this happens.
A recent survey of 3,500 teachers found that schools with high numbers of pupils on free meals – a key poverty indicator – were by far the most likely to have a lunch of 30 minutes or less. Meanwhile, schools in wealthy areas commonly still had lunchtimes of 45 minutes or more.
So along with all the other inequalities that go with poverty – from lower height to lower academic grades – we’ve added another one. Poor kids get fewer breaks.
The ability of private schools to pump their pupils with extra-curricular lunch activities makes a difference in higher education access. The British Phonographic Industry recently found that 85% of private schools have orchestras, as opposed to just 12% of schools in disadvantaged areas. Choirs are similarly imbalanced. Which two scholarship types are abundant at Oxbridge? Choral and music ones. If that’s not social engineering, I don’t know what is.
With budgets in state schools cut to the bone, schools can’t compete. As one headteacher, John Tomsett, pointed out, “when you cannot pay for lunchtime supervisors, and teaching staff are too tired to volunteer, there is only so long a small number of senior leaders can supervise 1,527 students”.
Unlike the head of Stowe, I’ll save my tears for the thousands of children who battle against all these disadvantages. And a few more for those who despite all this go on to get an Oxbridge place – who are then told it’s thanks to “social engineering”.