How a baby boom is placing pressure on the education system
Demand for school places has shot up in recent years as the population surges
Numbers entering primary school are projected to peak in about 18 months time to almost 575,000 children
While the baby boom of recent years is seen as healthy news for the future of the country, it is set to pose a major challenge for one sector in particular: the education system.
Numbers entering primary school – which have risen significantly over recent years – are projected to peak in about 18 months time.
By this point it is estimated that almost 575,000 children will be in primary school, a figure not seen since the last baby boom during the early 1980s when enrolments rose to a peak of 566,000 pupils.
This population bulge is set to push through into secondary level where, for the first time in the history of the State, numbers are set to rise above 400,000 by 2025.
It all means the education sector will be under acute pressure simply to keep pace with the population.
Within the next five years alone, some 19,000 additional permanent primary school places are needed, along with a further 43,000 second-level places.
In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department of Education divides the country into more than 300 school planning areas, some 40 of which are in Dublin.
Some €4 billion is set to be pumped into the education sector between now and 2021 for more than 300 major school building projects, including extensions and new schools, to keep pace with demand.
Already, however, there are signs that pockets of the country are under acute pressure and face school place shortages.
Parents whose children are stuck on lengthy waiting lists for their local secondary schools in areas such as Newbridge, Co Kildare; Wexford Town; and suburbs in Dublin and Galway, are worried they will not secure places for their children.
Campaigners say a combination of admission rules that prioritise the children of past pupils and a shortage of places is causing stress and anxiety for parents and young people.
They argue that methods used by the department to measure demand are too broad and do not take into account local pressure points.
South Kildare, for example, is one of the fastest-growing regions of the country. The population has surged over the past 15 years and the latest provisional census results show it is still growing.
Admission policiesJennifer ButtnerEducate Together
“Schools have been changing their admission policies – such as religious affiliation, definer feeder schools and home address – which is excluding a growing number of children.”
Ms Buttner argues that the department is focusing on school figures for a much broader region of south Kildare and is not picking up acute pressure locally.
This, she says, is a source of gnawing anxiety for parents and their children who may already feel worried about making the transition from primary to secondary school.
In Wexford, research commissioned by the local authority indicates there is an immediate shortage of about 500 second-level places.
“All of our second-level schools in the county are currently under pressure, and demographics point to the situation only worsening in coming years,” he said
“It doesn’t take a genius to work out that these children will require school places, and we need to plan for that now.”
The department, however, says multiple applications from parents to schools may be inflating pre-enrolment lists in areas such as Kildare and Wexford.
It says it uses geographical information systems to identify where the pressure for school places will arise and to ensure these needs are met. A spokesman said the figures are being kept under constant review.
Since 2011 new schools are generally only being established in areas of demographic growth. This year, for example, three primary schools and eight post-primary schools will be opening in areas of high demographic growth, which are mostly in the greater Dublin area.
The outcome of the latest demographic research has signalled that 13 new schools (four primary and nine post-primary schools) will be needed in Dublin, along with the suburbs of Cork, Limerick and Portlaoise.
“In addition to these, the department is keeping all areas nationwide under review to take account of updated child benefit data and updated enrolment data and also the impact of ongoing and planned capacity increases,” a Department of Education spokesman said.
The lack of clarity on the availability of places at a local level, however, remains an ongoing sore for parents and campaigners. Mr Byrne said the fact that parents feel forced to make multiple applications for schools shows the pressure they are under and the need for a better approach.
Some schools in catchment areas operate a shared applications system, which is helping to give parents greater certainty on where their children will get a school place.
“It’s all very well saying that parents will have places sorted out by September 1st,” he said. “It is an anxious time. We need a system where we can guarantee to parents that they will get a school place.”