Lunchtime and Levelling Up

A recent Facebook discussion on the length of lunchtimes caused me to think back to the good times, way back to the good times. I attended secondary school in the 60s, a time when additional music lessons were free, there was an activities afternoon scheduled for the entire school (it was a small 800 rural comp) in which the school orchestra rehearsed and lunch took an hour. In my first year every lunch table was headed by a prefect who served his/her table from piping hot tureens! Gradually the school increased in size and this civilised delivery of lunch could no longer happen and the prison tray approach came in. However, the most important thing was there was an hour and if you had an activity then you got to the front of the lunch queue, what an incentive to participate in any activity, artistic or sporting, even if you were on detention you got to the front of the queue!

Fast forward to my teaching years where after school rehearsals were:

Monday – Choir

Tuesday – Orchestra

Wednesday – Listening Night – we used to play records in the early days of the 80s!

Thursdays – Wind Band

Friday – Swing Band

There were free bus passes for those who needed them and the last bus to various places out of time was 30 minutes after rehearsals, or sports activities finished!

As a split site school, a lot of “junior” music took place at lunchtime and on the main site every student taking an instrumental lesson was encouraged to be in a self – organised chamber group!

Recognising that we wanted to develop our ensembles further we began to enhance lunchtimes and introduced string sectionals for the orchestra and wind, brass and percussion sectionals for the Wind Band. We even got to the stage where senior players led the sectionals.

Gradually the school day changed, and lunch times became shorter but we still managed sectionals. However as the accountability framework began to impinge the “core subjects” began to run lunchtime “classes”  .. I mean they taught their subject for 5 times the length of music, taught fewer students and saw fewer parents at parents’ evenings, a point I wasn’t backward in coming forward with at Heads of Department meetings.

This Nirvana still to an extent exists in many schools and is challenged in many by the accounts in the Facebook posts.

So why do schools shorten lunchtimes? Is it to minimise behavioural issues or cut costs as they do not have to employ so many supervisors, or maybe give free lunches as “recompense” for those running activities? Don’t call lunch time, a break the professional associations fought for, and perhaps you can use teachers to supervise. Finally shortening lunch, shortens the school day and maybe saves on utilities bills.

English schools are required to submit daily attendance figures to the DfE (How to complete the educational setting status form – GOV.UK ( and it estimates that 3.2% of all pupils – around 248,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on October 21.  On the return to school after half term Suffolk County Council (Council news | Suffolk County Council)  reintroduced face masks and restrictions on visitors to Suffolk schools to help slow the current rate of transmission in education settings.

It is therefore understandable that schools are taking public health measures to protect all on site. However the Schools COVID-19 operational guidance – GOV.UK (  issued on 27th September states

We no longer recommend that it is necessary to keep children in consistent groups (‘bubbles’). This means that ‘bubbles’ will not need to be used in schools. As well as enabling flexibility in curriculum delivery, this means that assemblies can resume and you no longer need to make alternative arrangements to avoid mixing at lunch.

You should make sure your contingency plans (sometimes called outbreak management plans) cover the possibility that it may become necessary to reintroduce ‘bubbles’ for a temporary period, to reduce mixing between groups.

Any decision to recommend the reintroduction of ‘bubbles’ would not be taken lightly and would need to take account of the detrimental impact they can have on the delivery of education.

However, some schools have maintained bubbles meaning that mixed year ensembles cannot happen regardless of the length of the break. Could this be this having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable children? Lunchtime gives music departments access to a “captive” audience and one school reports that not one single Pupil Premium child is attending after school activities where they were participating at lunchtime.

Restricting extra-curricular activity to after school means that choice is lessened for Music, Drama, PE departments will all be vying for the students who are known to do it all, but with activity limited to five slots instead of ten choices will be made and no matter how compelling the offer standards could drop. I used to say to PE colleagues that they could always find another centre forward, but 2nd oboes are not easy to find!

But surely lunchtime should be about ethos, character building and fun? Not every student will want to join a club, some will want to just run around or go to the library or just hang out?  Unwittingly schools that shorten the lunchtime may well be adding to the achievement divide between private and state schools. I know that in one private residential school lunch is lunch and rehearsals take place after school or in the evening, when they have their “captive “ audience.

Taking on an SLT on lengthening the lunch hour needs to be a collaborative effort. Music departments need to seek out allies in other arts departments and the PE Department. However Music Departments have an ace in the hole as OFSTED IS ON THEIR SIDE for the  2021 Research Review of Music Education (Research review series: music – GOV.UK (  quotes the English Music Education Guru Kevin Rogers’ speech to the ISM (The 11th Festival of Education: Kevin Rogers’ speech ( in which he said

 Good music departments are often underpinned by 3 learning environments:

  • music in the classroom (the ‘taught curriculum’), compulsory until Year 9, then optional for examination classes (GCSE, BTEC, A level)
  • instrumental and vocal tuition (in groups or one-to-one) and ensemble membership
  • musical ‘events’ and opportunities, for example singing in assembly, concerts and shows, trips to professional concerts.

Let’s take levelling up a stage further. Surely the aspiration of every school and every school music department that their students reach the top and the Henley Review of Music Education ( Music Education in England ( included a talent progression route represented by a pyramid.

I don’t think this should be about talent it is more to do with opportunity and this can be equated into the classroom as well for why offer students the chance to study GCSE if the school cannot offer them the opportunity to study at A level and then on to Conservatoire or University?

Take a look at the National Youth Music Organisations (Music education programmes | Arts Council England). Whilst I understand membership is pretty evenly divided numerically between the private and state sector and I’m not sure where to place MDS schools, the proportion of private vs state as per school populations is staggeringly different.

One final point is that of SLT expectation for attendance at twilight management meetings or CPD sessions. Continuity and tradition in extra curricular music making are paramount. Just try shifting a regular rehearsal from one night to another and attendance will drop. Chopping and changing rehearsals or cancellation often means attendance drops off. Music Teachers expect commitment but SLTs sometimes fail to understand the implications of a disrupted rehearsal schedule.

I have brought a number of issues into the lunchtime debate; Covid is still a factor in schools but Music Education in the state sector must grasp the levelling up agenda and limiting the opportunity for students to make music at lunchtime diminishes opportunity even more.

Published by askrichardarts

Recently retired (September 2019) after a 42 year career in Music and Arts Education I am an experienced arts educator specialising in school leadership and all aspects of arts education but with particular expertise in music and music education. From 2011 - 2019 I was Music and Arts Strategy Manager in South Gloucestershire leading the South Gloucestershire Music Hub, Arts Council England’s preferred provider of Music Hub activities in South Gloucestershire. Always regarded as a minor risk organisation it provided teaching and ensemble activities to over 4000 children a week and many ensembles achieved national recognition at the Music for Youth Proms and National Festival. From 2005 to 2011 I was National Specialist Coordinator for Performing Arts and Music at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust effectively a national adviser on arts education contributing to many national initiatives e.g. Music Manifesto, Musical Futures, Henley Review of Music Education, and Building Schools for the Future. I also provided curriculum support and professional development to over 600 schools in England and in 2010 gave a keynote speech on Music Education in the UK at Gifu University in Japan. The bulk of my teaching career was at Richmond School in North Yorkshire where I led a highly successful Music Department with over 300 students a week learning musical instruments and large classes at GCSE and A level. I commissioned a number of works for School Wind Band by composers such as Bill Connor, Adam Gorb and Philip Wilby and developed UK and Worldwide commissioning networks to commission works by Christopher Marshall and Marco Putz. As an adjudicator I have worked throughout the UK, in the Netherlands, Australia and the USA and Canada. In retirement I am a Trustee of the Music Education Council ,Independent Chair of the Music Hubs in Somerset and Torbay , and a doctoral student at the University of the West of England.

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