Numbers attending mainstream primary schools in the Republic have recorded their first significant drop in almost 20 years with some 6,300 fewer pupils enrolled in the 2020/21 academic year.
Preliminary figures on enrolments for the current school year published by the Department of Education show a 1.1% fall-off in numbers attending mainstream primary schools.
A total of 553,003 pupils were registered as attending primary school in September.
It is the first significant decrease in primary school numbers since 2001.
The latest change is regarded by education authorities as the start of a new trend which will see numbers attending primary schools decreasing over the next 15 years.
In contrast, numbers enrolled in post-primary schools in the current year are up 2.1% with the addition of 7,733 pupils.
The total student population at secondary level is now 379,183.
The latest figures also confirm another trend of a move away from Catholic to multi-denominational schools at primary level.
Although almost nine out of 19 primary schoolchildren still attend schools with a Catholic ethos, there was a 1.5% decrease in numbers enrolled in Catholic schools in the current academic year.
The figures show 7,737 fewer pupils are attending Catholic schools this year, while there has been a 4% increase in numbers going to multi-denominational schools with 1,541 more students enrolled in such schools in 2020/21.
The number of mainstream Catholic primary schools has also decreased by 20 in the past two years to 2,756, while over the same period there were 23 new schools with a multi-denominational ethos.
In the past decade the number of multi-denominational schools has risen from 85 to 159 – an increase of 87% – as the number of Catholic schools declined by 110 since 2011.
“These clear trends in school ethos are a result of the closure of small schools with declining enrolments and the amalgamation of schools in close proximity to each other, as well as the opening of new multi-denominational schools in response to parental choice,” the Department of Education said.
It pointed out that all 25 new primary schools which opened in the past five years have been multi-denominational, although they have been spread across a variety of patrons such as Educate Together.
At secondary level, just over half of all students attend Catholic schools – up 1.1% in the current academic year.
At the same time, it was only a third the rate of increase in numbers enrolled in multi-denominational schools which rose by 3.2% and which now account for over 46% of the student population in post-primary schools.
In line with demographic trends, the number of secondary schools has been gradually rising in recent years from a low of 699 in 2012 to 730 in the current school year.
Growth over the past decade has largely been driven by multi-denominational schools which have gone from 321 in 2010 to the present level of 359.
They now exceed the number of Catholic schools which has decreased from 360 to 344.
Despite their ongoing closure, the Department of Education said small primary schools still remained distinctive with almost a quarter of all schools having 60 or fewer pupils.