Primary school population to peak at highest level since 1980s

More than 563,000 children are enrolling in primary schools this September

The number of children attending primary school is set to peak next year at the highest levels recorded since the baby boom of the 1980s.

More than 563,000 children are enrolling in primary school this September, an increase of about 5,000 over last year, according to official estimates.

Next year it is projected primary enrolments will peak at almost 567,400 pupils, which matches a record set in 1987 when the population in primary school last reached the same level.

While numbers are set to decline gradually at primary level from 2018 onwards, the population bulge will push through into second-level, where numbers are set to rise to a record high of 416,000 by 2025.


The population growth will place major pressure on the Government to keep pace with growth, particularly at second-level.

During the next three years alone an additional 22,800 pupils are expected to enter the system across primary and secondary .

Some €4 billion will be spent on more than 300 major school-building projects between now and 2021, including extensions and new schools to keep pace with demand.

The pace of building work is causing some strain. For example, last year the Department of Education was forced to seek an additional €100 million for new school buildings.


Population projections beyond a four or five-year period can be difficult to project given migration flows and fertility rates. On migration, latest official projections indicate there is likely to be slightly positive inward migration again from 2017 onwards.

As for fertility rates – in other words the number of children who would be born per woman if all women live to the end of their childbearing years – most recent evidence shows this fell sharply from the 2010 level of 2.09 to 1.9 in 2016.

The department projects that the fertility will gradually decline in the coming years, reaching a level of 1.8 by 2025, and is likely to remain constant thereafter.

Officials use a combination of child benefit data, census figures and other data to help project population growth and pinpoint where new schools are needed.

However, there are signs that pockets of the country are under acute pressure and face school place shortages at second level.

Many 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 concerned 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.

Local pressure points

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 latest census results show it is still growing.

Campaigners for an Educate Together school in the south Kildare region say the secondary school-age population is set to increase by 24 per cent between now and 2025. This projection – based on census data – does not take into account recent migration into the area or planned residential developments in the area.

“We are predicting a shortfall of 415 second-level places by 2025,” a spokesperson for the campaign said.

The department has said multiple applications from parents to schools may be inflating pre-enrolment lists in areas such as Kildare. It said it uses geographical information systems to identify where the pressure for school places will arise, and to ensure these needs are met. It said the figures were being kept under constant review.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent