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Pupil numbers in north to fall by 10,000 over next four years

30-10-2007

The Irish News

The number of pupils at schools in Northern Ireland fell by more than 4,000 at the start of the new academic year, new figures have revealed.

There are now more than 55,000 empty desks, according to education minister Caitriona Ruane.

The majority of these so-called surplus places - 36,000 - are in primary schools.

Pupil numbers are expected to drop further in each of the next four years, by which time another 10,000 less children in the north's schools.

But while it is anticipated that pupil numbers will continue to fall, these annual drops will slow down.

The latest statistics were revealed by Ms Ruane in response to an assembly question by the DUP's David Simpson.

Mr Simpson had asked the minister to detail the number of unoccupied desks - broken down by school sector - expected in each of the next five years.

The Department of Education said it did not have figures for future surplus places in each sector.

But based on population projections from the NI Statistics and Research Agency, the minister was instead able to predict that the overall school-age population is projected to decline by about 15,000 between 2007 and 2012.

The largest single drop - 4,228 - is predicted to take place in the current school year with further drops of 3,495 in 2008/09, 2,433 in 2009/10, 2,721 in 2010/11 and 2,183 in 2011/12.

Ms Ruane also provided separate figures, which revealed the existing number of empty desks broken down by school sector.

Catholic primary schools have more than any other - 18,200, compared to 17,200 in the 'controlled' sector.

In the post-primary sector, Catholic secondary schools have 9,300 surplus places compared to just 1,000 in grammar schools and 7,900 in controlled non-grammars.

The empty desk crisis has already prompted a radical shake-up of Catholic school structures, which may strip many of their names and grammar status.

Grammar, non-grammar and even primary pupils may come together as part of reorganisation proposals by the Commission for Catholic Education.

While the statistics also showed there are 400 surplus places in Irish-medium primary schools, this is because many have only been open for a short time and do not yet have children in P5 to P7.

However, Frank Bunting, of the INTO teachers union, said that the situation was not as bad as the figures had made out.

He said there is an increasing number of immigrants in schools and more special needs children were being educated in a mainstream setting.

"Pupil numbers are rising in some schools and falling in others," he said.

"It is a varied picture across Northern Ireland where population is going up and down."

"The relationship between projections and actuality is quite large."

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