Priority years turned away as key worker pupils rise

Primary leaders forced to close Year 6, Year 1 or Reception bubbles or set up waiting lists to deal with surge in demand

Amy Gibbons

Coronavirus: Primary schools have warned of rise in demand for key worker pupil places

Primary heads have reported that their school reopening plans are "in turmoil" due to a rapid increase in demand from children of key workers.

In the wake of wider school openings from 1 June, one primary headteacher said key workers "seem to be multiplying before my eyes", while another said she had to "withdraw" her offer for Year 6 pupils as demand from critical workers rose.

Asked on social media whether they were having to close bubbles for priority year groups as more key worker parents sought school places, some primary leaders said they had been forced to turn children away or set up waiting lists to manage capacity.

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One head said they had closed bubbles for "early years, all key stage 1 and those key workers' children in Year 3".

Another said their school had started "very slow", with just Year 6 on a rota, but an increase in demand from key workers meant "only half of Year 1 and no EYFS can come back".

Primary head Claire Bills said: "I'm looking at having to either partially close two [bubbles] (half weeks each or alternate weeks) or fully close one... So hard when both are in, settled and happy..."

Coronavirus: Rise in demand for key worker school places

And Year 6 teacher Sam Hood said: "We've started to plan for this eventuality. We've written to the Year 6 parents to warn them of this possibility. Thankfully, we're not there yet!"

Headteacher Roxanne questioned whether new parents wanting provision "still fit the criteria" for key workers.

"I feel everyone has become one," she said.

Primary teacher Mrs B said: "My concern is that we'll become too full to run our Year 6 hub and those children won't even get their goodbye that they've been promised by the government and told that that was the reason they were coming back for."

On the reasons why more key workers might be seeking school places for their children, she added: "For the most part, the new uptake has been from parents that have complained about lack of online teaching. We've set home learning, just not delivered online lessons."

And parent Nicola Hazleton said her daughter's school had made the decision to close bubbles.

"Completely understand it’s not the fault of the school at all but we are gutted that tomorrow is most probably her last day at primary school," she said.

However some school leaders said they will not be closing priority group bubbles, regardless of how many key workers request a place.

Primary school head Jamie Barry said: "We made the decision that once we had opened a bubble, we wouldn’t take those places away. We are operating a waiting list now."

Headteacher Katie Smith added: "I'm not closing a bubble. That would also expose staff to a new bubble? KW places were offered first and prioritised but if turned down everyone then has the same opportunity as everyone else. Once full, the answer is no. KW or not."

Another headteacher said: "I had to put a limit on the key worker pod. It hasn't been full since we locked down in March but I put a warning out that it would be capped due to space and staffing and it is now full.

"Had to turn some parents away this week but they have had plenty of time to sign up, so..."

Michael Tidd, head of East Preston Junior School in West Sussex, told Tes he has not been forced to close any bubbles yet, but his team have had to "eke out another" by combining two part-time staff and a higher level teaching assistant to cover the week.

If any more key workers request spaces, Mr Tidd said his school will have to either ignore government guidance or face the prospect of sending Year 6 pupils home, which he said "seems worse to me that not having invited them in in the first place".

"We're now at our absolute limit, so if any more key worker spaces are needed, our option will be to adjust Year 6 groups," he said.

"Given that the government is sticking by its 'no rotas' message, I presume the only option will be to close groups entirely.

"For us, that will mean weighing up whether we ignore the government guidance and move to having Year 6 on a rota, or choose a quarter of our Year 6s to send home – or send them all home again.

"Frankly, the rush to open so many year groups from 1 June has caused the problem. If we had been asked to encourage all key workers in initially, we might have been able to increase their numbers first and then work out what space we have for Year 6.

"As it is, the prospect of sending groups home seems worse to me than not having invited them in in the first place."

Mr Tidd said the "big shift" in key worker children came over what would normally be the half-term break.

"Having previously had around 20 key worker pupils in most days, just by moving to full-time, our numbers went to 30, so we initially planned for three groups, allowing us to expand to 45 key workers, as well as our separate Year 6 groups," he said.

"By 1 June we'd already expanded that further to four groups to accommodate the increasing number of requests.

"Some because key workers' partners had previously been furloughed and were now returning to work, some because they were returning, and others because previously they'd chosen to keep children at home and had now changed their mind (even if they had someone at home to care for children).

"We're now about to open a fifth bubble for key workers, in less-than-ideal circumstances, but particularly since the announcement that other year groups won't return, there are again plenty of families who didn't need a space who now do."

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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