Primary schools have been told they can use spare space in local secondary schools to get more pupils back before summer – but use community building has been ruled out.
New guidance states primary schools with extra capacity can welcome back pupils from any year groups, despite education secretary Gavin Williamson telling Parliament last week he was working on a “priority” list for schools of which pupils to welcome back first.
An update to Department for Education guidance, published today, states: “It is up to schools to decide which pupils to prioritise, based on their knowledge of their children and communities.
“They may choose to welcome back pupils in another year group.”
The guidance adds primaries may be able to bring back more pupils because take-up amongst eligible children is lower than expected, or because there is additional space still available within the school and available staff to teach and supervise.
But it adds: “There is no expectation on primary schools to welcome back additional children where they do not have capacity to do so.”
And the guidance states primaries should only welcome back more pupils where they “do not require additional funding, staff or classrooms to do so”.
However it adds that primaries can make use of any access to space on other school sites (for example, local secondary schools) as long as they take “care to ensure children stay in allocated groups”.
However other community buildings, such as village halls, “should not be used to expand capacity this term, while they remain closed in line with the government’s roadmap”.
The use of community buildings had been suggested by the National Education Union, amongst others, as a viable option to get more pupils back in school.
For middle schools inviting year 8 pupils back, the guidance states they “should be confident they can manage this within the strict measures we have asked primary schools to adopt”.
They should also “consider the potential risks inherent in broader social mixing outside school and communicate with pupils about not socialising with each other in groups outside school. They may also want to consider staggered starts and finishes.”
Primaries are also now allowed to invite pupils in for “check-in” meetings before the end of term.
The DfE has been contacted about whether a “priority list” is still being published.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is helpful that the government is allowing schools the flexibility to prioritise which children they think will most benefit from time in school, if they are able to offer this.”
When deciding how to welcome additional pupils back, primaries should make clear to parents from reception, year 1 and year 6 that haven’t yet taken up their offer of a place that this may be used to bring back another pupil instead.
“Schools should ascertain if those parents want to take up the offer, making it clear that if they indicate that they do not, or do not respond, schools may offer this capacity to another pupil in which case they won’t subsequently be able to take up a place this term,” the guidance adds.
“They should ensure they are still able to accommodate vulnerable children and children of critical workers.
Primaries are now in their third week of being able to welcome more pupils back. But Teacher Tapp data shows the return has been patchy, schools in the east of England and the south west are more likely to be open, while those in the north west and Yorkshire and the north east are less likely.
Alongside this, disadvantaged schools are less likely to re-open and for those that do open, poorer pupils are less likely to return.
Williamson said he wants to “make sure as many pupils as possible can get back into the classroom and be reunited with their friends and teachers before the summer, to support their wellbeing and education.
“We have a range of protective measures in place in schools to reduce the risk of transmission and I would like to encourage primary schools to invite more children back if they can maintain those existing guidelines.”