Some primary schools flouting class size guidance, survey suggests

12 June 2020, 10:29

File photo: More than one in five support staff say primary schools have run classes of more than 15 pupils
File photo: More than one in five support staff say primary schools have run classes of more than 15 pupils. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Some primary schools have ignored the Government's safety guidance and operated larger class sizes since reopening to more children, a survey suggests.

More than one in five support staff say primary schools have run classes of more than 15 pupils, according to a poll by Unison - who say "corners have been cut" amid rushed Government reopening plans.

Department for Education (DfE) says primary school classes should be split into classes of no more than 15 pupils per group, and these small "consistent" groups should be kept from mixing with other pupils during the day.

A Unison survey of more than 8,000 support staff in schools in England suggests that nearly half are not reassured by their experience of working with increased pupil numbers after the first week of wider opening.

Their biggest concern (56%) was contracting Covid-19 and passing it onto others, with nearly half (48%) saying social distancing between children is only being followed to a small extent or not at all.

The poll, of teaching assistants, cleaners and admin staff, comes after children in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in England began returning to primary school this month.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to admit defeat this week over plans - set out in the Government's Covid-19 recovery plan - for all children to go back to primary school before the summer.

It came after some schools leaders said they did not have enough space on site to admit all pupils in the eligible year groups, while adhering to Government guidance to limit class sizes to 15.

Mr Williamson told MPs that the current cap on class sizes is a "limitation" to returning more year groups back into school, but he signalled this could be changed in the future.

Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, said: "This survey shows the pressures schools have been under to meet the June deadline.

"The result is some corners have been cut, with staff either not consulted in time, or not at all in some cases.

"The focus has been on supporting pupils already in school, those still at home and the most vulnerable children. Now unions, staff and ministers must work together to get many more pupils back in September. Children and staff must be brought back safely, and parents allowed to get back to work."

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After facing criticism for dropping the plans to admit more pupils before September, Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that pupils would undergo a "massive catch-up operation over the summer" to cover work missed.

The Prime Minister said details of the catch-up plans will be outlined by Gavin Williamson next week.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "Our experience is that schools have done a fantastic job in a very short timeframe in implementing safety protocols, with great thought and care, to protect the health and wellbeing of their staff and pupils.

"If any member of staff has a concern over any aspect of these processes we would recommend that they raise that concern with their headteacher."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Last week marked the first, cautious step in a phased approach to bringing more children back into the classroom, with secondary schools and colleges beginning to provide some face-to-face support to more students from Monday.

"We will be supporting primary schools that have capacity to bring back more children - with reduced class sizes of 15 - to do so if they can before the summer holidays, and we will be working with the sector to bring all children back to school in September."