Hundreds of Northern Ireland primary schools will be hit by a shortage of P1 pupils this September - reducing vital frontline funding and putting teaching jobs at risk.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal today that first-year classes at 271 primary schools - almost a third - will be less than half full this September. Their P1 intake is 50% or less than their admissions number.
Eighty-six of these schools are within the Southern Education Board, 56 within the WELB, 52 in the NEELB area, 39 in the SEELB and 38 in the BELB.
As schools receive most of their funding on the basis of pupil numbers, the declining number of young people starting their primary education this year will put the future of schools and hundreds of teaching jobs at risk.
Figures obtained by this newspaper from the five education boards show that there were a total of 20,083 applications for the 31,182 P1 places available for the 2007/08 school year. Overall, a third of the total number of P1 places will be empty.
The figures do not include reception class children - who automatically transfer into P1.
Figures obtained last year indicate that the P2 year for 2007/08 will also only be two-thirds filled.
The Government has been strongly criticised in the past for its slow response to the declining school-aged population.
DUP education spokesman, Sammy Wilson, said today: "Schools will be scared stiff by these figures because they understand the financial implications.
"Some people are calling for a delay to school closures and amalgamations, but if something is not done soon to deal with this problem there will be job losses and schools will continue to be run down.
"Schools with low numbers have already been publicly named, budgets are pinched and pupil numbers are continuing to fall so we must take action now."
A spokeswoman for the SEELB said that the board is currently working on teacher redundancies because of the decline in the overall school population.
"There will be a number of teaching posts lost from the primary sector but it is hoped that the majority of these will be accommodated through voluntary redundancy or premature retirement," she added.
A BELB spokesman said: "The shortage of P1 pupils will have an impact on school budgets.
"This could have a knock-on effect on a school gradually going into a greater budget deficit but does not necessarily mean that it will close the school."
A spokesman for the SEELB said that it will continue to keep staffing levels and the schools' estate under review.
A spokesman for the WELB said: "Schools will continue to provide quality education and boards of governors will make decisions within the funding available."
A spokesman for the Department of Education said: "The Bain review highlighted that small schools can face particular challenges and the key consideration in reviewing a school should be the quality of education provided.
"Relevant education authorities are reviewing school provision in light of falling rolls and the Department will be developing the review process to take account of the implementation of the Bain report recommendations.
"Schools are required to prepare financial plans to guide their expenditure decisions and these should take account of the impact of anticipated enrolments."