Primary school classes should be limited to 15 pupils, Government guidance says

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Primary school class sizes should be limited to 15 pupils, desks should be spaced as far apart as possible and outdoor space should be utilised, the Government’s new guidance says.

The guidelines, from the Department for Education (DfE), advises schools to stagger lunch and break times, as well as drop-off and pick-up times, to reduce the number of pupils moving around.

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

The advice, published by the department on Monday evening, suggests that nurseries and schools should remove soft furnishings and toys that are hard to clean – and try to keep children in the same small groups at all times each day.

Education settings which cannot achieve the small groups required due to limited classroom space or staff numbers should discuss options with their local authority or trust, the guidance says, adding that solutions might involve children attending a nearby school.

It comes after the Government announced its ambition for all primary school pupils in England to go back to school for a month before the summer.

The Government expects children to be able to return to nurseries and childcare settings, and for Reception, Year one and Year six pupils to be back in school, from June 1 at the earliest.

Teaching unions have warned that the plan is “reckless” and the ambition for all year groups to return to primary schools by summer is not “feasible”.

More than 440,000 people have signed a petition urging the Government to give parents a choice on sending their children back to school if they reopen.

The Government has said families who choose to keep their children at home when schools reopen will not face fines.

Children work at the dining table as they take part in home schooling (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

But parents will be strongly encouraged to take up these places – unless the child or a family member is shielding, or the child is particularly vulnerable.

The new Government guidance – on how schools, nurseries and childcare providers can safely reopen to more pupils – says most staff in education settings will not require PPE when they open up.

But it adds that it should be worn by a supervising adult if a pupil becomes unwell with symptoms of coronavirus while in the setting.

Children and staff are not required to wear a face covering or face mask in schools and early years settings.

The Government guidance acknowledges that young pupils will not be able to remain two metres apart from each other and staff.

Instead, primary school classes should be split into groups of no more than 15 pupils per group. These small “consistent” groups will be kept from mixing with other pupils during the day.

The advice says that demand for childcare is “likely to be lower than usual” and so staff-to-child ratios “should allow for small group working”.

But it adds that in some cases, it may be necessary for childcare providers to introduce a temporary cap on numbers to ensure that safety is prioritised.

Schools, colleges and nurseries closed seven weeks ago due to the coronavirus outbreak, remaining open only for vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers.

The Government’s 50-page Covid-19 recovery strategy, released on Monday afternoon, said that secondary schools and further education colleges should prepare to begin some “face-to-face contact” with Year 10 and 12 students.

Now guidance from the DfE says that alternative provision settings should also offer face-to-face support for students in Year 11 as well as Year 10.

The DfE has also said pupils eligible to return to school on June 1 will have access to testing if they display symptoms, alongside symptomatic members of their household.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “I know how hard schools, colleges, early years settings and parents are working to make sure children and young people can continue to learn at home, and I cannot thank them enough for that.

“But nothing can replace being in the classroom, which is why I want to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.”

He added: “The latest scientific advice indicates it will be safe for more children to return to school from June 1, 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.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the Government’s aim for all primary school children to return to school for a month before the summer was not “a feasible scenario”.

He 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.

“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.”