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Four new Irish schools to open despite empty desks

By Kathryn Torney

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has approved the establishment of four new Irish-medium primary schools — despite new figures showing a third of places in the sector lay vacant during the last academic year.

The Belfast Telegraph reported yesterday that 827 places were not taken up in Irish-medium primaries during the 2009/10 school year. This equates to 29% of the 2,892 primary places available in the sector across the province.

Yesterday morning the Department of Education announced that the minister had conditionally approved the establishment of four new grant-aided Irish-medium primary schools.

The schools are Gaelscoil an tSeanchaí, Magherafelt; Gaelscoil na mBeann, Kilkeel; Gaelscoil Léim an Mhadaidh, Limavady, and Gaelscoil Choin Rí Uladh, Ballymena.

The proposed opening date for all schools is September 1 this year, or as soon as possible thereafter. The department confirmed they will all be new schools — operating from temporary accommodation.

The minister said: “Demand from parents for Irish-medium education for their children has been growing for many years and the proposals for these new schools reflect that demand.

“The Department of Education has a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education.

“I am, therefore, giving these four new schools conditional approval because I believe they will ensure that the choice of primary education through the medium of Irish is available to a growing number of children.

“Recurrent funding for all four schools will be conditional on the schools achieving the required admissions threshold.

“Any future capital funding will also be conditional on the schools being vested by the department when the schools have proven their long-term viability.”

The statistics on enrolment and empty spaces in Irish-medium schools are taken from the October 2009 School Census and were issued in response to an Assembly question from MLA Tom Elliott.

The figures lie in stark contrast with the situation in the integrated schools’ sector, where 650 pupils had to be turned away last year due to a shortage of spaces.

There are around 50,000 empty places in the entire school system across Northern Ireland — a sixth of total capacity.

Most primary schools in Northern Ireland receive around £2,000 per pupil, while Irish medium schools currently receive £3,371.

In March Ms Ruane announced a £2m windfall solely for Irish-medium school buildings.

Mr Elliott, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, criticised Ms Ruane for supporting Irish language schools while desks remain unfilled.

“The minister has increased the budget of the Irish medium sector five-fold over the past two-and-a-half years despite there being an under-subscription,” he said.

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