Hundreds of primary schools under the threat of closure have been thrown a lifeline following the publication of long-awaited plans on the future of the schools estate.
Of 321 schools identified as having too few pupil numbers, just 31 have been earmarked for potential closure, another 70 have been proposed for mergers, amalgamations or consolidation, while 18 are recommended for sharing.
The majority of schools – including ones with pupil numbers as low as 20 and well below the 104 pupils needed to be sustainable – have been listed under "local area solution to be explored".
This vague categorisation of plans could involve a process that takes up to five years.
DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said the plans confirmed that the case for school closures has not yet been made.
He stated: "It has been clear for some time that the education minister and his departmental officials believe they have an unassailable case for the closure of schools.
"I have made it clear, however, that the case has not truly been made, either financially or educationally. Schools in Northern Ireland are funded on the basis of pupil numbers and that monetary value remains regardless of what school they attend.
"Closing schools therefore does not realise any significant savings whilst potentially incurring extra costs through transportation, teacher redundancy and renovation of remaining schools."
The plans – which the public has until June 30 to respond to – have been revealed following yesterday's publication of the draft area planning primary proposals by the five education and library boards in conjunction with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).
The number of closures, mergers and shared options fall far short of the hundreds of schools identified as having problems in last year's controversial viability audits. Those included:
• 66 of 839 primary schools not meeting educational criteria
• 321 primary schools falling below the minimum enrolment threshold
• 66 had a projected deficit greater than 5% of their budget or £75,000, with a total deficit of £4.5m
• 390 primary schools not meeting the criteria in one or more categories.
Mr Storey, chairman of Stormont's Education Committee, added: "The publication of these plans simply confirms that this case for closure has not been adequately made.
"Moves towards the creation of large 'super-schools' do not guarantee the educational outcome that is essential for our children. I believe the minister should call a halt to this current process and engage in a real debate about the real educational and financial issues facing the future of our education system and schools estate."
The review of the schools estate was ordered by Education Minister John O'Dowd (below) in September 2011 after it emerged there were 82,500 empty desks – 63,000 in primary sector.
Pupil numbers are also forecast to continue to fall while hundreds of millions of pounds have been wiped from the education budget.
Commenting on the plans, the minister said: "These plans will inform wide-ranging discussion and dialogue at local level.
"This is an opportunity for an informed and mature debate that will shape future primary education provision and help identify local solutions that will benefit all children and young people.
"I hope to hear innovative ideas, including the consideration of possible sharing of accommodation and resources."
He refused to be drawn on the scant details provided by the plans but warned that the Education and Skills Authority, which is set to replace the education and library boards and CCMS, would not shy away from making "tough decisions" on the future of schools.
The Ulster Teachers' Union and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers have urged the minister to proceed with caution.
It is expected the primary plans will be updated later this year, while any proposals for closure or amalgamation will have to be put out for consultation.
Clock is ticking... but there is time for a rescue
By Lindsay Fergus
Primary schools will be breathing a collective sigh of relief today after the publication of draft area plans.
Of 839 schools, just 31 have been identified for potential closure – 4% of schools.
There are around 63,000 empty desks in our primary schools, unfilled places which the education minister knows is costing the system money.
Despite deep concerns, the recurring theme in the plans was "local solution to be explored" – which means no solution could be agreed in time for the publication of the proposals.
Schools, parents and communities have been given a unique opportunity to come up with a plan for survival.
The clock is ticking for many of these schools, which are not sustainable on their own with just 20 or 30 pupils. Others are failing academically while some have debt from which they are unlikely to recover.
Now there will be a public consultation process, which is open for the next three months. But if communities fail to grasp the lifeline that has been thrown to them by the education boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, their replacement – the Education and Skills Authority – will not be so generous.
Yet again the opportunity for cross-community mergers has also been missed, despite a large number of schools with low enrolment numbers or problems with budgets and education standards.
Many of those schools could yet be saved if communities come together to form an integrated school, a voluntary primary school or a federation.
Surely that would be a much better outcome than small, rural schools closing their doors?