Up to 300 schools face an uncertain future after the Education Authority launched a consultation on its plans for the next five years.
The ambitious proposals to streamline education in Northern Ireland revealed that that 228 primary schools and 54 post primary schools fall below the threshold of minimum pupil numbers.
The EA published a paper on a five year area plan yesterday, which will go out for public consultation until April 12.
As the education system faces a further 2% budget cut next year, at a time when the system is already facing a multi-million pound deficit, the EA said that educating a pupil at a smaller primary school is around £1,500 more expensive than at a larger one.
Figures show the average teaching costs per pupil at a primary school of less than 60 children is £4,094, compared to £2,459 at a school of more than 630 children.
Eighteen out of 38 rural post-primary schools have fewer than 500 pupils, the minimum number recommended by the Department of Education, with 36 out of 155 post-primaries in urban areas also having fewer than 500 pupils.
The average cost of educating a pupil in a post-primary school with fewer than 250 pupils is £6,233, compared to £4,793 in those with an enrolment of more than 700.
The EA area plan also looks at the structure of special schools in Northern Ireland and said there would be a need for 2,000 additional places for pupils by 2030.
There has already been a 25% rise in the number of pupils in special schools since 2015.
That has left a number of special schools with significantly more pupils than they were originally meant to admit and also a shortage of places in some areas.
According to the EA, that trend is likely to continue and may mean that more special schools need to be built.
The EA said Northern Ireland’s draft ‘Strategic Area Plan 2022-2027’ and its draft ‘Special Education Strategic Area Plan 2022-27’ aim to develop a network of sustainable schools that are of the right type, of the right size, located in the right place and with a focus on raising standards.
EA director of Education Michele Corkey said: “The Education Authority, collaborating with Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and engaging with all sectoral support bodies, has developed this draft plan based on what has been learnt from the last Strategic Area Plan and feedback from school principals and sectoral bodies.
“To meet the draft plan’s goals, we need managing authorities and sectoral bodies to continue to work together to find solutions to the many complex challenges which are shaped by falling or rising pupil numbers, parental choice, changing demographics and multiple school sectors within a certain area.
“Our focus must remain at all times on the educational needs of pupils and not on the needs of individual institutions or sectors.”
When it comes to enrolment numbers, the department’s policy on sustainable schools states that primary schools should have at least 140 pupils in urban areas and 105 in rural areas.
According to the EA’s strategic plan, about 230 of 800 primary schools in Northern Ireland have fewer than the recommended number of pupils.
The majority of those are in rural areas, with 193 out of 440 rural primaries having fewer than 105 pupils.
Former Education Minister Peter Weir previously said there were too many small schools in Northern Ireland.
“While aiming to support sustainable rural provision, there are still too many small/unsustainable schools,” the EA document said.
“There may be some local circumstances where provision will be necessary but the determination of this will be subject to consultation, assessment and rationale for provision.”
But some have argued that small rural schools are vital to local communities and bring additional benefits for pupils and parents.
The draft EA plan said “change will be needed” but it does not name individual schools which may be faced with closure or amalgamation.
Other schools may be asked to do more collaborative work together like running joint classes in some GCSE, AS or A-level subjects.
Fermanagh and Omagh district council area has the highest number of schools that could be subject to review with 50 primary and post-primary schools “below the enrolment threshold”.
As far back as December 2006, an independent Strategic Review of Education (the Bain Review) indicated that, because of falling pupil numbers and Northern Ireland’s many education sectors, there were too many schools.
In response to the findings of the Bain Review, the Department of Education introduced its Policy for Sustainable Schools in January 2009. Since then, dozens of schools have been shut down or merged. Some others have been allowed to expand.
No sector has been immune — grammar, primary, secondary and nursery providers in rural and urban areas have all faced upheaval.
The plan states the schools will be reviewed to “find a sustainable model of (primary or post-primary) provision through a phased programme”.
Newry, Mourne and Down district has 48 schools that do not meet the enrolment threshold, while there are 46 in the Causeway Coast and Glens borough council and 41 schools in the Mid Ulster region.
The area plan will also look at Post-16 provision in some schools as there are 42 with sixth forms of fewer than 100 pupils.
Over the next five years, there will be an aim to “develop solutions for schools with sixth forms of fewer than 100 that cannot offer a full range of courses”.
“We encourage schools, families and their communities to join us on these journeys, whether it be in mainstream education or special education and to engage with area planning to work to achieve effective and sustainable solutions for provision in Northern Ireland which will deliver the best educational outcomes for children and young people,” Ms Corkey added.
The consultations and all related information are available to download at www.eani.org.uk/publications/consultations.