Education news

Time to revisit issue of large class sizes

Primary schools in the north have an average of 27 pupils, higher than almost all OECD countries

CLASS sizes need to be reduced now to improve children's education and better comply with social distancing restrictions, a union has urged.

Children returned to their desks full-time this month having been learning from home since March.

An initial plan to enforce social distancing of two metres was abandoned in favour of `bubbles' among younger age groups.

Schools should still be "ensuring maximum distancing between older pupils".

Public health guidance with respect to social distancing of two metres remains in place between adults and "as far as possible between adults and pupils".

In addition, schools are being asked to "endeavour strenuously to implement as much social distancing as is practical where physical capacity and curriculum delivery permit".

The matter of large pupil numbers has long been an area of concern for unions.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) has pointed out that the average number across OECD countries is 21.

In Northern Ireland, there can often be more than 30 in a single room, when teachers and classroom assistants are added to the total pupil number.

Caroline McCarthy, chair of the INTO northern committee, said nearly 40 people in a classroom did not leave space for social distancing, nor did it leave space for learning.

She said Covid-19 had highlighted that years of lack of investment in education had made class sizes fit a financial restriction rather than an education benefit.

While previously the impact of this may have been reduced interaction in the classroom "it has now become a health risk".

In June, minister Peter Weir and his department released guidance with a clear focus on maintaining social distancing in schools.

"Despite the time spent producing this guidance there was no accounting of the practicalities of the guidance in a working classroom," Ms McCarthy said.

"The large class sizes, change in pupil profile and tired schools estate, due to the impact of a lack of investment in education for over 10 years, made the classroom layouts unrelatable to a real school.

"In order to meet the guidance, principals set about with a split class model. This reduced class size, maximised social distancing and focused on safety, wellbeing and curriculum delivery. Minister Weir encouraged schools to reduce class size by using all available space in the school and community - unfortunately the funding to support this was not made available and was superseded by a change in social distancing guidance in schools. However, the goalposts were to be moved at the eleventh hour."

Social distancing was later loosened in schools, "not removed in black and white but seen as a best endeavour rather than a commitment," Ms McCarthy added.

"If a school has large classrooms, space for free movement and one way systems, windows that ventilate well then risks may be reduced, but this does not reflect our schools estate, littered with mobiles, old cramped buildings and limited outdoor space suitable for our inevitable weather," she said.

"Educational achievement is held in high regard yet investing to reduce class size not just due to Covid-19 but to improve the teaching andarning support is brushed aside. Class size needs to be reduced now to make our classrooms safer for all and going forward improve our schools and achievement for all."

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COMMENT

THE large size of the north's classroom was a major issue way before schools were reopened.

Primary schools have an average of 27 pupils, according to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD). The average across OECD countries is 21.

Unions say the north is more like the developing world in this regard.

The fewer pupils, the better the chance that their achievement will be boosted, unions claim, yet numbers are spiralling.

When the restart was first mooted, and social distancing and part-time learning were still on the table, there was talk of all available space being used.

Principals maintain there is little, if any, space. Bringing children back, even on a part-time, rotational basis would have been a physical challenge.

Guidance had even sketched out some possible classroom layouts to show how children might be keep apart.

The later change in need for distancing and full-time return scrapped this "safety measure", unions said.

The OECD study came as dozens of schools across the north were hit with coronavirus cases since pupils returned.

It has provided an excuse to revisit the issue more broadly.

The regulations, which set the cap at a significant 35 in secondary schools, were published in 1973.

Parents, teachers, principals and governors agree that excessive class size is detrimental to children's education.

As well as having a positive impact on learning, fewer pupils would reduce teachers' workload, be valued by parents and keep learners and staff safe - just a few reasons why limits are worthy of fresh consideration.

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