Class Sizes in Practical Subjects in Post-primary Schools (DE Circulars 2004/05 and 2016/11)

The Legal Position

The Secondary School (Grant Conditions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1973, Regulation 15 stipulates that the maximum limit for a general class is 35 pupils, and, for a practical class, 20 pupils except where approved by the Department of Education.

There has been not been any change in legislation since 1973, but the Department of Education has allowed flexibility in determining class sizes subject to certain conditions. It is important to note that Circular 2016/11 does not supersede Circular 2004/05. Circular 2004/05 deals with science, art and design, and PE, while Circular 2016/11 deals with technology and design, home economics and music.

Circular 2004/05 approved class sizes (subject to conditions) in excess of 20 where a class of pupils is under instruction in a practical subject and are not involved in practical activities. The Circular also states that ‘Where a class of pupils is under instruction in a practical subject and are involved in practical activities, the Department takes the view that, in general, the health and safety hazards are such that adequate and safe supervision of pupils is not possible if more than 20 pupils are present.’

They also state that ‘in practical classes with pupils with special educational needs, the number of pupils present should be fewer than 20. The specific number should reflect the additional support and supervision which are required in the class.’

The Circular goes on to state that the Department is prepared to approve a class size in excess of 20 in circumstances where the activities are unlikely to present any risk to the health and safety of the pupils in the class. It put the onus on the school authorities to assess the health and safety risks of practical activities in the various practical subjects.

Neither Circular 2004/05 nor 2016/11 give blanket approval for class sizes in excess of 20.

What has the Education Authority said?

In correspondence to schools, the EA has made the following points:

  • If there is a proposal to put 25 pupils into a technology and design manufacturing room to engage in practical activities that is designed for 20, the risk assessment would recommend that this should not happen. For example, in the 93m2 available in a manufacturing room (specified in the Building Handbook), the maximum class size for practical activity is 20.

  • For technology and design and home economics, practical activity for more than 20 pupils in teaching spaces designed for 20 pupils carries an increased health and safety risk for pupils and teachers.  The size and specification of the teaching space is a crucially important element of any risk assessment and will inevitably mean that not all schools will be able to avail themselves of the flexibility offered in DE Circular 2016/11.

  • The EA’s advice to schools is not to timetable practical tasks which carry a health and safety risk to pupils and teachers (because of the nature of the activity and the equipment involved) for more pupils than the accommodation is designed for.


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