The big squeeze

30th March 2012 at 01:00
With pupil numbers exploding around the country, headteachers are increasingly facing a crisis over where to put them all. Richard Vaughan asks whether super-sized primaries with growing class sizes are the answer

The bell sounds for the end of a drizzly lunch break at Gascoigne Primary School. Troops of children, all anoraks and smiling faces, line up to make their way back inside under the watchful eyes of their teachers. It is 1.20pm and lunch started nearly two hours ago.

Headteacher Bob Garton and his senior staff have been on near-constant playtime duty since first break at 10.25am, three hours ago. The endless parade of pupils, shuffling from break time to class, from lessons to lunch, is punctuated only by assembly. At Gascoigne, there are three or four a day.

This is just an average Wednesday in the 1,100-strong primary school in Barking, East London, one of the capital's most deprived areas. What has made things a little more trying is the rain. How a primary with more than a thousand pupils copes with wet playtime is little more than a wonder. Home time is particularly extraordinary. Many hundreds of parents and carers arrive to pick up 1,100 children. To say it's like a military exercise would not do it justice.

"It is challenging," Garton says, half smiling. "But we all know what our jobs are and we manage."

Gascoigne's headteacher has a welcoming, laid-back manner, and he needs it. His school and staff are calm, belying the fact that Gascoigne is bigger than many secondaries, and easily treble the size of some primaries.

A primary school of its size comes with its unique challenges. Christmas-time, for instance, is particularly fraught.

"There was a time when we were doing 12 nativity plays each year," Garton says. "We have 150 pupils in each year, so there was no way we could do one nativity per year group. The parents want to come and we just don't have the space in our hall."

The school has now managed to work around the issue, he adds, but it still means two weeks' worth of the birth of Jesus.

But far from being in a league of its own, Gascoigne Primary could well be a sign of things to come, certainly in areas such as Barking and Dagenham. According to official pupil projections from the Department for Education (DfE), England will need an extra 450,000 primary places by 2015 owing to a surge in birth rates in certain parts of the country.

Photo by Nick Sinclair: Space is at a premium in East London's Gascoigne Primary; a surge in birth rates around the country and the resulting shortage of places mean many more schools will soon have the same problem.

You can read the full article in the March 30 issue of TES.

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