A controversial Sinn Fein plan to survey 50,000 families on cross-border education provision has been attacked by the DUP after it emerged that every child in the Republic who applies for a school in Northern Ireland already gets a place.
The DUP chairman of the education committee, Mervyn Storey, accused Education Minister John O’Dowd of having lost sense of his spending priorities at a time when schools are being closed and teaching jobs cut.
Latest figures from the Department of Education show that just 402 pupils with addresses in the Republic are enrolled in primary and post-primary schools here. Of these, 146 attend primary schools in Northern Ireland and 256 post-primary schools.
“The Western and Southern Education and Library Boards have both confirmed that no Southern pupil was unsuccessful in obtaining a place in a Northern school in the 2011/12 school year,” a spokeswoman from the Department of Education said.
Mr Storey said that the minister was telling parents in Northern Ireland they can’t exercise parental choice and their children have to go to the nearest school, and on the other hand “he is trying to enhance parental choice for those who live on the other side of the border”.
“The Department of Education has a legal duty to give priority admission to school to children from Northern Ireland,” said Mr Storey.
“This move is to give the impression that there is a demand for an all-Ireland education system when the figures show there is not.”
The cross-border education survey is expected to be conducted in September and October by the Department of Education here and the Department of Education and Skills in Dublin.
Up to 50,000 families living on both sides of the border will be asked to take part.
Mr O’Dowd has also sought legal advice on the current legislation, which gives priority admission to children living in Northern Ireland.
Mr Storey added: “At a time when schools are closing and teachers are being made redundant it is alarming that the Education Minister is choosing to spend money on surveys to examine cross-border education.
“The minister needs to remember that his first priority is educating the children of Northern Ireland.
“Currently school principals are being asked to cut budgets and parents are concerned as the unnecessary threat of closure hangs over their children’s schools. Now is not the time to undertake this study.
“The minister needs to address the issue of sharing across sectors in Northern Ireland and raising standards here before he starts to tackle schools in the Republic.”
The Department of Education spokeswoman said: “While it is true that many young people are currently travelling cross-border to access their education, to date there has never been a formal review on this issue.
“It is possible that some parents may not be aware that this option is open to them, or perhaps may be concerned about barriers — real or perceived.
“The survey will help to identify how much demand there is among parents and pupils and what steps both administrations need to consider in trying to meet that demand,” the spokeswoman said.
There are 302,441 pupils in Northern Ireland’s primary and post-primary schools — meaning just 0.1% of Northern Ireland’s school places (402) are taken up by children from the Republic. Although there are no official figures available for the number of children living in Northern Ireland who attend schools in the Republic, it was estimated in 2009/10 to be around 119.