The number of costly surplus places in Northern Ireland's segregated schools could be as high as 72,000, according to figures provided by the Department of Education.
The staggering figures for the 2009/10 school year were released by Education Minister Caitriona Ruane in April in response to a written Assembly question from Independent MLA Dawn Purvis.
The revelation of just how many ‘empty desks’ are in our divided system comes just days after First Minister Peter Robinson sparked a heated debate over the way our education system is run.
He described it as a “benign form of apartheid” and has declared himself in favour of an integrated system, not just on financial grounds, but as a moral issue.
The shocking 71,916 “unoccupied seats and desks” — which includes unfilled seats in primary and post-primary schools across the province — is much higher than the 54,000 surplus places Ms Ruane has referred to in public speeches and debates.
It is understood that two different measures are used by the department to define spare capacity.
‘Surplus places' means the number of children a school is built to accommodate.
This is the measure normally used for long-term planning of the schools estate.
‘Unfilled places' is defined as the difference between the approved enrolment number — which can be increased by the department temporarily — and the actual enrolment.
Ms Ruane's response in April shows there are 67,037 unfilled places in total in primary schools and 18,379 in post-primary schools. But the 85,416 overall total has to be reduced by 13,500 to account for the pupils with statements of special needs who are admitted over and above approved enrolment numbers.
There were 35,000 surplus places in our schools in the 1999/2000 school year.
Alliance Party's education spokesman Trevor Lunn said: “Whether it is 72,000 or 54,000 or some other figure in between, the number of surplus places in our schools is still unsustainable.”
DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey, who chairs Stormont's education committee, said: “The true figure is probably higher than the department has been saying. This is an issue facing education which we cannot ignore.
“The high number of surplus places means we must have surplus schools and that is a big challenge for the department and politicians.
“Let's be honest, politicians do not like to be the people to close anything. We are currently not grappling with this problem in the way that we should.
“We need to do more to address all of the problems in education and in doing so we need to ensure that all schools are able to provide the best possible education.”