Lunchtime during the school day is often an underappreciated, yet valuable time of the day. Far from being a purely logistical challenge, lunchtime can provide students with support for their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as an array of extracurricular activities and opportunities for them to socialise with their peers and unwind.
Yet in recent years, the lunch period has suffered a number of blows, from reports of a reduction in the availability of extracurricular activities to an overall shortening of its time allocation. In fact, in some areas of the UK, the ‘lunch hour’ is now merely a lingering reference to a bygone era, with many lunch periods’ lasting less than 45 minutes.
The reasons for such a change are wide-ranging, and seemingly different for each school or region. For some, the decision comes down to a worry about the ability of staff to supervise pupils effectively for an extended period of time outside of the classroom. For others, it’s a budget concern.
Whatever the reason, the impact can be significant.
It is already a well-established truth that a rigid focus on exams and academic attainment in schools can detract from the importance of safeguarding and supporting children’s mental wellbeing. This has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen many young people returning to the school environment experience high levels of anxiety after an extended period of isolation from their peers.
If schools and academy trusts are to be able to support their pupils’ beyond academic attainment, then it is crucial that they are giving students the time to be able to take a step away from the studies and daily logistics to prioritise their wellbeing.
Social clubs and extracurricular activities play a huge role in this. From drama clubs, debating societies, or sports, activities outside of traditional learning can have an enormous impact on wellbeing, and provide excellent opportunities to develop pupils into well-rounded individuals.
However with that said, in many cases, the issue is not as simple as how long a lunch period lasts. Whether you have an hour scheduled for lunch period, or 40 minutes, no one wants to see children’s free-time eaten up by waiting in long queues to be served their food.
Long queue times are a common problem in lunch halls across the UK, and cause a number of different issues. Not only can they severely limit a pupil’s free-time, they can also cause high levels of dissatisfaction among pupils (and their parents!). This makes them far more likely to look for alternative meal options - leaving your school with a reduced income opportunity.
Critically, this doesn’t even take into account a potential increase in the need for Free School Meals (FSM).
FSM eligibility is on the rise. Since 2019, the number of children claiming FSM has increased from 1,270,914 to 1,897,449 by mid-2022 - an increase of a huge 49% in approximately three years. Moreover, campaigners continue to call for a change in eligibility criteria for FSM which would allow more children in food poverty to claim a healthy school meal.
This increase raises a significant, yet often overlooked, issue. As one campaigner, Jeanette Orrey MBE, recently discussed in published an open letter backed by LACA chair Brad Pearce, many campaigning for increased FSM availability fail to take into account the need for improved infrastructure.
In this article, we explore our top five tips for reducing the long queue at lunch time, from introducing digital solutions such as cashless catering, to alternative logistic options including staggered lunch times. Read on to find out more.
Perhaps the most obvious and influential option for reducing lunch queue times is the adoption of cashless catering solutions.
Very few organisations or businesses only accept cash as a payment option. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, cash payments declined rapidly due to the hygiene risk of multiple people handling the same coins and paper notes. Research carried out by LINK, the UK’s main cashpoint network, found ATM transactions fell by up to 68% in April 2020, when the UK went into its first national lockdown.
And this trend has impacted schools, too, with many adopting cashless methods throughout the pandemic as a means of decreasing the risk of contamination.
The benefits of a cashless system go far beyond hygiene, however. Without the need for pupils to count their cash to pay, and staff calculating and retrieving the correct amounts for change, the time taken for a pupil to purchase their meal is greatly reduced.
There’s a number of different options for schools looking for a cashless option, such as biometrics and QR codes.
You can find out more about the pros and cons of each solution in our blog ‘QR codes vs biometrics for schools’ cashless catering’.
Even the most organised and digitally streamlined of services can sometimes be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of children attempting to access school lunches at the start of the lunch period.
There is a straightforward way to get around this - staggered lunch times. By staggering lunch times by year, the lunch queue is significantly reduced and children hoping to get food at the start of their lunch period are far more likely to reach the front of the queue quickly.
For instance, if lunch starts for Year 2 students at 11.45 am, Year 3 students can start at 12pm and so on. This gives each and every student plenty of time and opportunity to get their lunch and sit down with their peers, without worrying how much time they have left before their next class starts.
Already, there are some schools who are implementing staggered lunch times, with great success. Haworth Primary School, working with Food for Life Partnership, embarked on revolutionising their lunch times, and found that staggering lunches helped put an end to long queues in their hall, and significantly increased pupils’ experience.
Another option that is growing in popularity among many schools is self-service.
Rather than waiting for a staff member to serve their lunches, children are able to select the food they want and pay (often via cashless payments!) once they’ve finished.
Not all schools are implementing this for every part of the school lunch, and for those that are, the serving station is often still supervised by a member of staff to ensure pupils use the station correctly.
For some, a pupil’s main meal is served by a member of staff, but there is also a self-serve salad bar, used to promote healthy eating.
While self-service can speed up the lunch queue, it also gives pupils a sense of control over their diets, and encourages them to actively participate in a healthy-eating lifestyle.
This is another element that can come in varying forms and complexity.
Allowing children to pre-order their meals doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take an exact order from each pupil every day.
For instance, some schools simply ask their students to select a meat or vegetarian option at the start of each day, giving each student a coloured token representing their choice.
Not only does this help the school prepare the right amount of each option, thereby reducing food waste, it also makes it much more straightforward when it comes to serving. Children simply hand in their token, and they are given the corresponding meal option.
Funnelling every child in your school to a single point of service for lunches is often asking for trouble. That is why many schools are now offering multiple points of service for lunch times.
For instance, it could be organised in such a way that hot meals are delivered via one station, while pupils have the option for sandwiches, wraps and other alternatives from a secondary station.
By separating the queues out, pupils will be served faster and more efficiently, leading to happier and more engaged pupils.
In fact, after installing an additional serving point, Oasis Academy Brightstowe increased overall sales at lunch time by 22%.
Whether you’re adopting staggered lunch times, multiple service points or cashless catering, Pebble can help.
Our Till solution is a tablet point of sale app, and we’ve designed it to process school meals simply, clearly and efficiently.
Because Till works on tablets, it can be used at multiple points of service, all at the same time - and as it requires no special hardware, you don’t need to worry about additional maintenance costs, call-outs or compatibility issues.
It uses a modern contactless pay unit, which is fully integrated within its system, so there are no line rental issues. Like online payments, the only charges involved are one-off fees and transaction charges.
Till will work with card and contactless payments alongside online payment services, so it doesn’t restrict its cashless functions to pupils, making it that much more flexible.
What’s more, the system enables accurate reporting, which is customisable, and stock monitoring with automatic deductions from your pre-set stock levels.
It’ll set-up your catering staff time management too.
Basically, Till is your school’s one-stop solution for cashless point of sale catering, fully fit for the 21st century.
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