A trade union’s criticism of a Swindon nursery school, and the borough council which runs it has been called”very unfair”.

The GMB union for the area has hit out at Penhill Nursery School and Swindon Borough Council for allowing the nursery to open with just one member of staff present.

The council says it was unavoidable, the pupil numbers were well within the legal limit and another member of staff was sent for as soon as possible.

Andy Newman, GMB branch secretary said: “Penhill Nursery usually operates with only two members of staff on the premises, a newly qualified teacher, and a teaching assistant, and there are 12 pupils. This is the minimum legal staffing level under the law which covers nurseries.

“Last week one of the staff did not come to work, due to an accident, and the nursery opened with only one member of staff. The school later did send over a replacement member of staff from Chisledon by minibus, but for a considerable length of time there was only one member of staff on the premises. Frankly this is unsafe for both staff and pupils, and does not meet safeguarding requirements. The nursery should not have opened until they had adequate staff present.

“In GMB’s view that is the clear position of the law. What would have happened if a child had an accident? How could the sole member of staff there supervise the other children if one child needed personal attention? How could the member of staff go to the toilet, leaving 12 small children unsupervised?

“Following redundancies, Chisledon School is operating with the very bare minimum of staff, with no slack to deal with unexpected incidents and emergencies. This is exactly the type of problem GMB anticipated when we warned the school and Swindon council earlier this year.

“Swindon Borough Council advise us that they approve the staffing level of a newly qualified teacher and a teaching assistant, as compliant with the law. However, they opened with only one member of staff, which is one short of their own requirement.

“GMB is horrified by the cavalier attitude to health and safety legislation regarding safe staffing numbers from Swindon Borough Council’s education team, and will continue to campaign on this issue so that the safety of both pupils and staff is safeguarded.”

But the borough council rejects the criticism and says it is factually inaccurate. A spokesman said: “The GMB is being extremely unfair in its criticism.

“To start with, the staff member phoned in sick just before the nursery was due to open its Breakfast Club. So, upon hearing this news the school sent another member of staff from Chiseldon -by car, not minibus - to Penhill.

“The decision was taken to open the breakfast club because you only need one member of staff for up to eight pupils under five for a breakfast club. So they were within the law.

The GMB makes it sound like there was a full class – there was not, there were only four pupils at the time. The member of staff on duty was also a fully qualified teacher so well above the ‘full and relevant’ Level 3 qualification required.

“A replacement member of staff arrived at Penhill within 35 minutes at the same time a further two pupils turned up.”

Staff at the nursery itself, which is part of Chiseldon Primary School and Nursery declined to comment.