Department ‘prepared’ for anticipated surge in pupil numbers

The Department of Education says it is prepared for the anticipated surge in pupil numbers which could require thousands of teachers, classrooms and new schools over the next decade.

Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures suggest a possible rise of 50,000 in the number of primary school-aged children in just five years, and an increase of 100,000 over 2011 figures by 2021. The numbers in the 13 to 18 age bracket could rise by up to 60,000 by 2021, and by as much as 117,000 by 2026 — a one-third increase.

An estimated 4,500 teachers are already expected to be needed to meet these increases at second-level alone in the next decade if Education Minister Rúairí Quinn or his successors do not increase pupil-teacher ratios further. The rises will also see tens of millions of euro a year more needed for grants, given to schools for their day-to-day budgets.

But while Mr Quinn’s officials have been forward-planning for a number of years to build extensions and new schools in the right areas over the next decade, their enrolment estimates had to be significantly revised upwards last year. As reported last August in the Irish Examiner, previous enrolment projections were found to have been seriously underestimated after Census 2011 data emerged last year.

The CSO population projects released yesterday are largely in line with the range of school enrolment increases anticipated by Education Minister Rúairí Quinn’s department since last summer.

For example, the numbers in the primary-school age-brackets of five to 12 are likely to rise from just over 502,000 in 2011 to around 556,000 by 2016. But the figure could reach anything between 590,000 and 602,600 by 2021, again similar to the department’s ‘best estimate’ last July.

At second-level, last summer’s predicted enrolment increases are also close to the range of increases in children in the 13-to-18 age bracket, accounting for dropout rates and numbers already finished school by the age of 18.

But while the CSO says the trends should not cause any surprise to education authorities, the data still point to increased budgetary demands. Mr Quinn’s spokeswoman said he will do his best to protect class sizes in forthcoming budgets, as he has done in the free education scheme in the last two years.

“The minister made clear in last December’s budget there will be another 450 primary and an extra 450 second-level teachers needed this year specifically as a result of demographic rises,” she said.

“Teaching remains one of the few areas in the public service where staff continue to be recruited,” she said.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation general secretary Sheila Nunan said the figures show there will be a need for more primary teachers, but that Government mishandling of teacher supply means there are hundreds unemployed.

The union is seeking an urgent regulation of the numbers in teacher training so those who qualify have a reasonable expectation of work in Ireland.

The focus of Mr Quinn’s €1.5bn five-year capital programme unveiled last year on catering for pupil growth rather than improvements to existing schools has meant the loss of annual grants to schools for general maintenance and running repairs.

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