Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland schools 'bursting at seams' warns union as officials predict scramble for 2020 places

Areas facing scramble for places identified

There is a growing number of pupils transferring from primary to secondary schools.
There is a growing number of pupils transferring from primary to secondary schools.
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

A union has warned schools in Northern Ireland are "busting at the seams" as government officials predict another scramble for places in the next academic year's intake.

The warning comes as the Department of Education identified six areas across Northern Ireland where there is likely to be a big demand for places for September 2020.

Pupil numbers have been on the rise in recent years.

A Department for Education document reveals there were 21,732 transferring from primary to secondary school in 2017. For 2020 just over 24,000 are expected to leave P7. That is an increase of just over 10%.

Officials have identified Belfast, Newtownards and North Down, Dungannon, South Co Londonderry, Antrim town and Newry were demand is likely to be highest.

The department has written to schools to encourage them to apply for a temporary variation to allow them to increase class numbers.

However, it warns the protocol exercise will still not create enough space and further measures will need put in place after the transfer application process ends.

The problem is exacerbated as the preference for schools selected by children and their parents can not be predicted.

"The department is of the view that additional temporary places should be built into the system prior to the commencement of the 2020 and 2021 post primary admissions processes," officials said.

"Failure to do so runs a high risk that the transfer process would not conclude in time, causing unnecessary distress to children and their families and uncertainty to schools."

In the past two years there has been a scramble for extra places in the system with schools forced to turn away pupils hoping to enroll. The Department of Education intervened and released extra funding to allow schools to take on more children.

Justin McCamphill of union the NASUWT said schools were "bursting at the seams" and children were being packed in "like sardines" in some classrooms.

He said teachers were concerned rooms were not big enough and the safety of pupils was being compromised.

"Many of the schools last year that took in extra numbers did not have the space for the children," he said.

"The transfer process is also very difficult to plan for, particularly for non-selective schools.

"In a good year they can get 100 pupils and in the next 50 and there is a financial difference so it is difficult for heads to plan ahead for.

"Grammar school, however, always get the required numbers, so there is an imbalance in the system."

Mr McCamphill said education officials needed to consider more long term planning in order to address the issues in the system.

"Parental choice is also a complicating factor. You can have large numbers of pupils coming to Belfast schools - as an example - when they might come from much further out. So again that is hard to plan for," he said.

He also questioned why schools were being considered for closure in some of the areas identified as having "significant pressure" on their intake.

"Why are considering closing schools in places that have a growing demand for places?," he added.

"The whole system is in need of reform.

"There definitely needs to be a longer term approach and a proper health and safety assessment of the numbers required."

Geri Cameron, president of the National Association of Head Teachers for Northern Ireland NAHT(NI) said it was a concern principals would be faced with an extra workload to secure additional places.

"The Department of Education needs to develop a placement strategy which seeks to plan for years ahead, not months," she said.

She said that while the protocol laid out allowed for a quick resolution "it is vitally important that the department recognises that investment in schools and in capital works is always money well spent".

"I am confident that the necessary statistics are available to identify trends that will allow for proper forecasting and planning in the hope that no child is ever unplaced at the end of the process in the future and I hope that the Department will work towards this goal.”

The Department of Education said parents should read admissions criteria carefully and nominate "sufficient and realistic preferences" which will maximise their chances of securing a place. It also encouraged parents to nominate one non-grammar in their preferences.

"Failure to nominate sufficient and realistic preferences increases the likelihood of a child being unplaced," a spokeswoman said.

“The department will only approve temporary increases to school admissions numbers where the school can safely accommodate the additional children.

“The statutory planning authorities must address issues of sustainability in all areas, but before bringing forward proposals to close schools, they will carefully examine all relevant evidence, including demographics and evidence of pressure on places during the admissions processes.

"Area planning seeks to ensure that all areas have education provision that is sustainable, and capable of responding to parental preference for different forms of provision.”

The Education Authority was also approached for comment.

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