Class sizes in English secondaries at largest in nearly 20 years

Official data shows average class has 22 pupils, adding to union concerns over distancing

Last modified on Wed 1 Jul 2020 12.16 EDT

Class sizes in England’s state secondary schools have ballooned to their largest size for nearly 20 years as a result of last decade’s baby boom, which teaching unions say underlines the difficulty of containing potential Covid-19 outbreaks.

Official data from the Department for Education (DfE) shows that secondary school rolls increased by 81,000 pupils at the start of the academic year, pushing the average class size to 22 and the average size of a secondary school up 2% to 986 pupils.

Overall, the number of state school pupils in England rose to nearly 8.9 million, with the numbers set to increase again in September.

The government is preparing to ditch a string of physical distancing restrictions to meet Boris Johnson’s pledge that all pupils will be able to return to the classroom.

The government is to announce next week that the use of smaller “bubbles” in primary schools – comprised of 15 pupils kept together with one teacher – will be dropped in favour of larger bubbles comprising an entire class.

In secondary schools, the advice is likely to see entire year groups treated as one bubble, as suggestions that older pupils be kept apart within schools are dropped, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.

But teaching unions said the new data from the school census underlined the difficulties for schools with crowded classrooms. The National Education Union (NEU) said that nearly a million schoolchildren were being taught in crowded classes with 31 or more pupils, which it described as “shocking”.

“The prime minister knew this when he stated last week, and again in the Commons on Tuesday, that schools must open fully to all pupils every day from September,” said Mary Bousted, the NEU’s joint general secretary.

Headteachers are adamant that any forms of physical distancing for pupils and staff can create logistical issues. One noted that while secondary school year groups of pupils could be contained, in many cases teachers regularly taught across different year groups, exposing them to greater risk.

James Bowen, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “These figures should be ringing serious alarm bells for the government. They point to a system that was already under huge strain before the coronavirus pandemic put schools and colleges under enormous extra pressure.

“Parents too will be concerned by the number of pupils being educated in class sizes of 31-plus. The government needs to address this problem urgently and make sure that all schools have the resources they need to keep class sizes at a manageable level.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said questions remained about how sixth-form and further education colleges would operate.

“We will want to understand the public health guidance which underpins the approach to full reopening,” Barton said. “This is important for the confidence of parents, pupils, and staff. And, as none of us know what the coronavirus situation will look like in September, we think it would be sensible to have a plan B if the conditions do not allow for a full reopening.

“We would also caution that a full return in September will not be school or college as normal. There will be a raft of safety measures in place, and we all need to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that there may be localised full or partial closures if there are outbreaks of the coronavirus, and this may be the reality for some time to come.”

The DfE’s school census also showed that 35% of primary schools were now academies, and 77% of secondary schools. The department announced that it was postponing the introduction of the new reception baseline assessment planned for primary schools in England in September.

The assessment, which aims to gauge the abilities of children at their entry into formal schooling, has been delayed until 2021 “due to the challenging circumstances faced by schools in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic”, the DfE said.

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