School leaders are set to be told there is no need for pupils of any age to sit apart when they return to class in September.
Boris Johnson has promised a full return to the classroom, five days a week from the autumn term, as the government has faced intense pressure not to let children lose any more school time.
Under new guidance to be set out by education secretary Gavin Williamson today, self-contained classes or “bubbles” – which cannot mix – will be expanded to allow all children back.
In primary schools, the maximum size of bubbles is expected to be raised from the current level of 15 to 30 children. The pupils and their teacher must still maintain distance from other classes.
For secondary schools, where older pupils choose multiple subject options, it is expected that whole year groups – of up to 200 pupils – will be permitted to form bubbles, with social distancing optional.
But schools are expected to be advised on how to minimise the numbers of pupils in each group with measures such as staggered start times, and extra hygiene precautions.
Mr Williamson, who confirmed this week that attending school will be compulsory from September, is likely to face intense questions about safety from MPs and teaching unions.
Headteachers say there has been confusion about the social distancing requirements for children who are already back at school. Guidance to schools in May said two-metre distancing should be followed “where possible”, and many schools have been trying to enforce it, but the Department for Education insist it is not compulsory.
Keeping pupils in bubbles of up to maximum of 15 has meant that extra teachers and classroom space are required for each year group that returns.
Claires Court school in Maidenhead is a private school charging fees of up £6,000 a term which has brought back its entire primary school and some secondary pupils, with distancing.
Executive headteacher Justin Spanswick said the school was “very lucky” to have the space and resources to do so, and that local state schools with larger class sizes had found it very difficult.
The school plans to keep all pupils in smaller bubbles of 10 to 12 children, even if permitted to include the whole year, to avoid large numbers having to isolate if one child develops COVID-19 symptoms.
Mr Spanswick said the school – where every child is issued with their own laptop and headphones – was running live lessons online for pupils who are shielding, or unable to return.
There is growing evidence that the gap between the most and least advantaged pupils has been widening during the lockdown, with huge variations in online learning.
A 20-minute drive from the school, in Slough, 15-year-old Bilal Mohammad, who shares a laptop with his three brothers, is worried about falling behind ahead of GCSEs next year.
He has not attended his state school for more than three months and says the online work he is sent is limited: “I’ve lost loads of months, from March onwards, all of that time and all of that content I’ve lost. I feel the stress is on me to catch up with all this work”.
Professor Calum Semple of Liverpool University, a consultant in paediatric respiratory medicine, supports a full return to school but says pupils should distance from their teachers and other staff.
He said: “It would be best practice if children could maintain a one-metre distance from their schoolteachers and other adults.
“You have to remember that if anyone is at risk in the schools it’s going to be the adults, not the children. One of the good things that’s come out of all the research we’ve been doing is that we understand that children are not at risk of severe COVID.”