There has been "little" change in average Irish class sizes over the past two decades, but the number of 'supersize' classes has sharply fallen.
Last year saw the average primary school class size at its lowest level in 20 years, albeit by a small margin.
This average was recorded at 23.3 students in 2020, compared to 24.5 in the year 2000. Despite the slight decrease, more than four in five (85%) children last year were taught in a class larger than the EU average of 20 students.
Since 2000, the number of very large primary school classes has also fallen sharply. Two decades ago, 17,592 students were in classes of 35 or more students. This compares to 2020, with 3,608 students learning in a class of 35 or more.
The figures are included in the Department of Education’s ‘Overview of Education 2000-2020’, which includes figures from the Central Statistics Office and compiled and published by the department.
In 2020, more than 93,000 children were in a class of 30 to 34 students, while 4,985 were in a class of 35 to 39 students. A further 116 children were in a primary school class of 40 students or more.
Last year, the majority (41.7%) of primary school students were in a class of 25 to 29 students. More than one in 10 (13.7%) were in a class of 30 to 34 students. In 2000, a third of students (34.6%) were in a class of 25 to 29 students, while almost one in four (24.7%) was in a class of 30 to 34.
This remains high by EU standards, where average class sizes were recorded at 20, according to the latest figures based on 2018 data, and above the OECD average class size of 21. The number of students learning in smaller classes also increased over the past 20 years, again by a relatively small margin, with more than 15% now in classes of 19 or fewer students, compared to 12.7% in 2000.
Furthermore, in 2020, 28.7% of students were in a class of 20 to 24 students, compared to 23.8% in 2000.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) has criticised the fall in class size numbers of just one pupil over the course of 20 years as a "damning indictment" of how Irish primary classes remain far above the EU average.
"Our politicians must take the opportunity presented by reduced enrolment projections from now to 2025 to reduce class sizes every year for the next four years of the Government’s term," said Joe McKeown, INTO president.
"Anything less will continue the legacy of letdowns suffered by Ireland’s primary school children for the last 20 years. Surely we can do better than this as a country.”
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 infection control and prevention measures introduced to schools last year are to remain from the beginning of the next school year. This includes school transport.
In a message to teachers, the INTO said staff meetings and parent-teacher meetings will continue to be held remotely until further notice. Vaccination of school staff will not be mandatory, and it is working with the department on the "practical implications" of this, it added.
The Department of Education has said previously that public health has advised new variants of the disease do not change the infection prevention measures required for schools.
It is expected to write to schools this week about funding for sanitisation, PPE, and air ventilation monitors, according to the INTO.