Schools which routinely ask staff to teach more pupils in merged classes amid teacher shortages should be challenged, education unions have said.
Ahead of the start of term, the Department for Education (DfE) told headteachers they may want to consider “combining classes” in the event of staff shortages to keep face-to-face teaching in place.
But a “safety checklist” from five trade unions representing teachers and support staff says merging classes “should not be adopted” as it will “increase virus transmission” and lead to “further disruption”.
The advice – from the National Education Union (NEU), NASUWT teaching union, Unison, GMB and Unite – urges teachers expected to routinely accept extra pupils from combining classes to “urgently” raise it with their union.
It adds: “Teachers should not routinely be expected to cover for absent colleagues, nor should they be expected to teach pupils who they have not been assigned to teach, i.e. pupils who are not registered for timetabled lessons with them, collapsed classes or multi-class assemblies.
“Cover is not an effective use of a teacher’s time and collapsing/combining classes is not only cover, but increasing the numbers of pupils in classrooms, or having large numbers of pupils in halls, will also only serve to increase transmission of the virus.”
The advice comes after Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told school leaders to consider merging classes, or sending groups of children home, if the number of staff off work due to Covid-19 reaches critical levels.
On Sunday, an email from the DfE advised headteachers that they may wish to use existing teaching, temporary and support staff “more flexibly” where required to ensure schools remain open amid staffing issues.
It added: “As pupils do not need to be kept in consistent groups, you may wish to consider combining classes.”
Pupils are returning to class this week, with new advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in Covid-19 cases.
Secondary school and college students are also being encouraged to test on site before returning to class.
Ian Bauckham, the chair of Ofqual, has suggested that schools may need to suspend “specialist” subjects like music to cope with staff absences.
In a case study posted on a DfE portal for heads, Mr Bauckham added that two or more classes could be “combined and taught by a single teacher” in a larger space as an alternative to remote learning in the event of high staff absences.
He wrote: “Where pupils in a year group are in any case in contact with each other in different classes for different subjects, or in informal social time, then it should not be a concern to bring classes together as envisaged here.”
But the coalition of education unions says measures to “minimise mixing” – such as keeping groups as consistent as possible – should be reintroduced in schools, and whole year group assemblies should be avoided.
A spokeswoman for the NEU said: “There are established ways of coping when teachers are absent. These include employing supply staff and for shorter periods asking HLTAs (higher level teaching assistants) to take classes.
“All of these routes must be exhausted before there is any consideration of mixing classes. There are clear risks with combining classes leading to more mixing, more spread of the virus and therefore more disruption.
“Practically this is also not a solution open to all schools. England has one of the most overcrowded school sites in the developed world. There is simply not the space in many school buildings to combine classes.
“Education staff are already in greater danger of being infected by Covid-19 than any other profession.
“Government should be doing everything it can to suppress Covid-19 transmission in schools, not making recommendations which are likely to lead to greater spread of the virus and more education disruption.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “It is our priority to retain face-to-face learning and the benefits it brings pupils.
“We understand that some schools and colleges might find it difficult to run their usual timetable if high numbers of staff are absent, which is why we are supporting schools to put in place appropriate contingency measures.
“It would be for individual schools to consider if it was appropriate to merge classes, but we’re clear face-to-face learning is the priority.”