Coronavirus mustn't mean larger class sizes by stealth

Schools may be asked to group pupils into larger classes, to cover for staff members with coronavirus. But, says Matthew Murray, will this open the door to larger classes once the crisis is over?

Matthew Murray

Busy pond, full of ducks swimming in all directions, and a single swan

In reaction to the global coronavirus outbreak, the UK government has announced a raft of emergency legislation, designed to help our public services cope with a nationwide epidemic

Among these was a plan to scrap maximum class sizes in primary schools (Reception and key stage 1 classes are currently limited to 30 pupils), so that, in the event of mass staff absences, teachers could take on children from other classes. 

The coronavirus pandemic is ongoing and is developing at a rapid pace, but this does not mean that the government's actions should not be scrutinised. 

Although at first glance this seems entirely reasonable, it could exacerbate an already worsening public-health situation, as well as harm the wellbeing of school staff members.

The new norm

First of all, during a potential nationwide epidemic, do we want to be putting more and more children in the same room? This measure could very easily facilitate the spread of coronavirus through schools, and in turn through local communities.

When the rest of society is seeking to avoid large gatherings, should this logic not apply to schools too?

Aside from this short-term issue, there is another more troubling problem with removing the cap on class sizes as an emergency measure: will the government be motivated to reintroduce them again? 

There is a chance, perhaps not intentionally, that these emergency measures could become the new norm.

We may find ourselves in a situation after coronavirus has subsided, where the emergency legislation is stuck in place with no political will to repeal it. With the government's in-tray already congested, there may just be no incentive to reintroduce maximum class sizes for infant classes. 

More work for teachers

The legislation to limit key stage 1 class sizes to 30 pupils was brought into effect in 1998 by the Labour government of the time, as part of their effort to reform the education system. 

Since that time, schools’ populations have grown significantly. As of last year, 40 per cent of key stage 1 children in England and Wales were already in classes containing 30 children. Another 4.5 per cent of infant children were in larger classes, which did not comply with the 30-pupil cap. 

With many schools so close to the limit, incorporating pupils from absent colleagues’ classes may not simply be a matter of just taking on one or two children. 

Ultimately, increasing maximum class sizes will inevitably lead to more work for teachers: more books to mark, more resources to ready and more children’s wellbeing and education to be responsible for. 

Running teachers into the ground

In the case of mass staff absences in schools, significantly increasing the workload of other staff members could run teachers into the ground and do real harm to their wellbeing

At such a point, school staff members may already be living with the pressure of caring for sick relatives who have contracted coronavirus.

With three-quarters of teachers already reporting feeling stressed at work, now is not the time to crank up the pressure in schools. 

Moreover, we should not abandon the reasonable aspiration – for teachers and children – to keep class sizes at sensible levels.

Matthew Murray is a primary teacher, and the creator of the literacy website www.2starsandawish.com. He tweets as @2_starsandawish

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Matthew Murray

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