Maximum class size of 15 for England's returning school pupils

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Children returning to schools in England next month will be taught in “protective bubbles” of no more than 15 and kept apart from others in order to minimise risk and keep pupils safe, according to new government guidance.

Schools will be told they can abandon the two-metre physical distancing rule required among adults in favour of keeping children in small groups that will be around half the size of normal primary school classes.

Assemblies, breaks and lunch times will be staggered to keep the number of pupils coming into contact with each other to a minimum, and each class will have the same teacher at all times and work in the same space to limit risks of infection.

With plans for a phased return for primary-age children beginning from 1 June, the Department for Education published practical guidance for headteachers about how schools could function safely. If pupils or school staff develop coronavirus symptoms, they will be able to access testing through the normal NHS channels.

Headteachers will be advised to stagger drop-off and home times to reduce gatherings of parents and children around the school gates. Cleaning will be increased, corridors should be one-way where possible, doors should be kept open and staff should ensure toilets do not become overcrowded.

Parents will be “strongly encouraged” to send their children to school unless the child or a family member is shielding or the child is particularly vulnerable due to an underlying condition, but schools and local authorities will not be asked to issue school attendance orders or fines if children do not attend.

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “The latest scientific advice indicates it will be safe for more children to return to school from 1 June, but we will continue to limit the overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission.

“This marks the first step towards having all young people back where they belong – in nurseries, schools and colleges – but we will continue to be led by the scientific evidence and will only take further steps when the time is right.”

The government has said it wants primary school children back in school for a month before the summer holidays where possible, with nurseries, nannies and childminders open for business again to enable more parents to return to work.

Ministers want the youngest children and those preparing to transition to secondary school in September to have the maximum contact with their teachers, with early years, reception, year 1 and year 6 returning to school from the beginning of June if public health conditions allow, followed by other year groups.

Secondary schools and further education colleges have been put on standby to prepare for “some face-to-face contact” with pupils in year 10 and 12, who are preparing for key exams next summer, to support their online classes.

A DfE statement said: “The transmission rate has decreased and the aim is that by 1 June at the earliest it will be safe for a greater number of children and young people to return to education and childcare. As a result, the government is asking schools and childcare providers to plan on this basis, ahead of confirmation of the scientific advice.”

Earlier, teaching unions rejected the government’s plans for a phased reopening of schools in England as “wildly optimistic to the point of being irresponsible”, accusing ministers of giving parents false hope that the country is further along the road to recovery than it is.

Lockdown calendar

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents most primary school heads in England, said the proposals were not feasible and it was an insult that teachers would be expected to make their own DIY masks for protection in the absence of proper personal protective equipment.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT, said: “The availability of school staff, the sheer number of pupils, and the sizes of school classrooms and corridors, combined with the need for social distancing measures, mean that the government’s calculations simply don’t add up.

“Based on the current trajectory it seems wildly optimistic, to the point of being irresponsible, to suggest that we will be in a position to return all primary children to school within the next seven weeks. This will give false hope to families and parents that we are further along the road to recovery than we actually are.”

Schools have been closed to all pupils except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils since gates closed on 20 March. Just 2% of all pupils are currently attending school, with the rest learning remotely.

According to the DfE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advising the government “has a high degree of confidence that the severity of the disease in children is lower than in adults and a moderately high degree of confidence that children aged up to 11 are less susceptible to it”.

Teaching unions remained unconvinced. Mary Bousted, a joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Education staff do not feel reassured that the government is taking these steps with public health in mind. This is not fair to anyone and it is not safe to put out a timeline until the public safety test has been met. This first sketch for schools must be immediately redrawn, alongside unions and the profession.”

Last Thursday Wales announced it would not be reopening schools on 1 June. The education minister, Kirsty Williams, said the Welsh government “will only look to have more pupils and staff in schools when it is safe to do so”.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has also highlighted safety concerns as a main reason for schools not to reopen before August, and Peter Weir, Northern Ireland’s education minister, said last week that any reopening would be “guided by science and health, and will not be date-driven”.

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