As school budgets have been squeezed, pupil numbers have increased, the recruitment and retention crisis has seen fewer teachers and class sizes have been increasing. This raises a number of issues from a health and safety perspective.
It is often suggested that a maximum class size should be recommended. Whilst there are maximum class sizes in some areas, such as in Key Stage 1 in England, and practical subjects in Northern Ireland, these are primarily in place for educational reasons, rather than for reasons of health and safety. In short, a class of 20 might be acceptable in some circumstances, but not others.
The key to determining whether the size of a class is too large is the risk assessment process.
Any activity should be risk assessed and this should include consideration of a number of factors, many of which are interlinked:
The physical environment, including the size of the classroom, the layout of room, whether furniture is fixed or moveable, the ease of movement around the room, any mobility needs for pupils or staff, the number of exits, the location of the room in relation to others, i.e. is it isolated, can help be summoned quickly if required?
The activity to be performed - are there any inherent risks? Is there any potentially dangerous equipment to be used?
The dynamics of the class in question - do any pupils have behavioural issues, are there additional adults in the room, what is the knowledge and experience level of the pupils/students?
Any existing/generic risk assessments - do these indicate any precautions that should be undertaken, or any minimum ages for the activity etc.?
Advice from subject associations, such as DATA, CLEAPSS, SSERC etc. These organisations publish advice and guidance for specific subjects and activities.
It may well be that a certain activity in a certain room is deemed safe, whilst it can be deemed unsafe with the same class in a different room - for example, using Bunsen burners with 30 pupils in a large classroom with plenty of space may be safe, but trying to do it in a very small, overcrowded room would clearly be unsafe. Likewise, doing this activity with 30 non-SEND pupils may be safe, but undertaking it with ten pupils with behavioural issues may be unsafe without additional precautions, which could include additional staff. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
It could also be that, irrespective of the activity, the class size is too large due to factors such as the difficulty evacuating the room in an emergency (the fire risk assessment may need to be consulted), or a lack of sufficient ventilation.
It cannot be stressed highly enough that it is the classroom teacher who is responsible for risk assessing activities in their classroom, whether that be quiet reading or use of concentrated sulphuric acid.
Teachers risk assess constantly and often without realising it. Risk assessments do not have to be written down. However, if there is a specific hazard, such as a practical activity, it is recommended to do so. If there is an accident, the risk assessment will be requested. If in doubt, write it out. Where there are specific risks and/or a risk assessment is required, training on how to carry out a risk assessment should be provided.
The Health and Safety Executive provides a Health and safety checklist for classrooms (pdf) which can be useful in the risk assessment process.
If, in the teacher’s opinion, having carried out the risk assessment, the risks are too great, then the activity should not take place without additional precautions to ensure the health and safety of all concerned.
Remember - it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure the activities in their classroom are safe. If this is not the case, do not proceed with the activity. If the activity is required for curriculum reasons, this should be discussed with the line manager, head of department etc. to identify further measures that can be taken, but do not proceed if you are unhappy or concerned about the risks.
If necessary, and particularly if you are being pressurised into carrying out an activity that you believe is unsafe, contact the NASUWT for advice.
The NASUWT has also published advice in a Class Sizes briefing setting out the evidence underpinning the educational case for smaller class sizes.