Classroom 'bubble' sizes could expand to get more children back to school

19 June 2020, 20:34

Gavin Williamson said the bubbles could be expanded to include the whole class
Gavin Williamson said the bubbles could be expanded to include the whole class. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Primary school class sizes could be expanded to get more children back to school, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said.

The protective 'bubbles' - put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus in schools - could grow to the point where they include every child in the classroom.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had previously said he wanted children of all ages in England to return to school five days a week at the start of the next academic year in September.

However, current guidelines limit primary classes to 15 pupils to reduce the number of people they come into contact with.

On Friday, Mr Johnson said to "watch this space" when asked whether social distancing restrictions could be cut to help schools to return in September.

Speaking to broadcasters during a Hertfordshire school visit, the UK leader said: "Of course, on the social distancing measures, as I've said, 'watch this space'.

"We will be putting in further changes as the science allows.

"I think that's what the public also wants to see, they want to see us working with the reality."

Speaking at the government's daily press briefing, Mr Williamson suggested the bubbles could expand to enable more children to return to education.

"We've been creating bubbles of children in the classroom, creating a protective environment for those children," he said.

"Currently that is at 15, what we would be looking at doing is expanding those bubbles to include the whole class."

The education secretary said signs the virus was reducing nationally meant ministers could look at "making sure every child returns to school."

He added: "We recognise there is still going to have to be protective measures put in place to make sure children are safe and make sure that teachers and all those who work in school are safe as well, and that is why we are going to be issuing further guidance in the next two weeks."

Read more: Northern Ireland's schools reduce social distancing rules to one metre

Read more: UK Covid-19 alert level moves from four to three

While class sizes from school to school vary, these "bubbles" could contain up to 30 pupils.

Children in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in England began returning to primary school at the beginning of June following an easing in lockdown measures.

Department for Education guidance states that primary school classes need to be split in half and contain no fewer than 15 pupils, while desks should be spaced as far apart as possible and lunch, break, drop-off and pick-up times should be staggered.

Schools should also consider introducing one-way systems through their buildings, or placing a divider down the middle of the corridor, to keep young people apart.

However, some have said they do not have enough space to admit all pupils in the eligible year groups while also adhering to government guidance to limit class sizes and encourage fewer interactions.

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On Thursday, Northern Ireland announced social distancing will be reduced to one metre in schools to get pupils back into the classroom.

First Minister Arlene Foster hoped the new measure would allow most children to return to full-time education in the autumn.

She said the majority of primary and secondary schools in the nation would be able to operate "close to normality" by easing the restriction.

Although pupils will be able to enjoy interacting at the reduced distance, teachers will still need to adhere to the initial two-metre social distancing rule, ministers in the power-sharing executive decided.

Staff will return to schools on 17 August while key year groups - seven, 12 and 14 - will return a week later on 24 August. The rest of the school population will return to classrooms at the start of September.