Primary school pupils set to fall by 120,000 over next decade

School leaders say decline will present opportunity to cut class sizes across State

The number of children attending primary school is set to drop by about 120,000 – more than 20 per cent – over the next decade or so, according to new Department of Education projections.

The sharp reduction may lead to surplus teachers at primary level and could threaten the future of some small schools.

However, school leaders say the decline also represents an opportunity to reduce class sizes in the State, which surveys show are among the highest in Europe.

While the pupil/teacher ratio is set to drop from 25:1 to 24:1 this year – the lowest on record – they remain the highest in the EU, where the average is 19:1.


Official data contained in a technical report on projections of full-time enrolment (2021-2040) show numbers at primary level have peaked and are likely to decline until 2033.

The projections assume slightly higher migration rates over the coming years and a small decline in fertility rates compared to current figures.

This report will be used in the areas of teacher demand and supply modelling, and forward planning of school buildings.

It shows that enrolments in primary schools in Ireland in 2020 stood at 561,000, down by almost 6,000 on 2019.

Pupil numbers at primary are now projected to fall over the coming years and will reach a low point of just higher than 440,000 by 2033. This is 120,000 lower than today’s figure.

Regional breakdown

The sharpest fall will be in the early period and will average 12,000 pupils per year between 2022 and 2028.

Enrolments at primary level are projected to rise again from 2033 and climb to almost 475,000 by 2040, a rise of some 34,300 over the seven years 2033 -2040.

A regional breakdown of projections puts forward two assumptions on population movement within the country: a Dublin “outflow”, where significant numbers of young families leave the capital; and a Dublin “inflow”, where the pattern is reversed.

The regional breakdown – based on the former assumption – projects the sharpest reductions in the south and west (almost 26 per cent). This could put many small schools, which are concentrated mainly in the west, under acute pressure.

The next biggest decline is projected in Dublin (24 per cent), while the smallest reductions are projected in commuter belt counties in the midlands and mid-east (8-12 per cent).

When this decline is broken down by year group, it is projected there will be almost 10,000 fewer children entering junior infants than in September 2029 compared to this year.

Enrolment at second level, by contrast, is forecast to rise sharply in the short term. This is due to a population bulge which is passing from the primary sector and into second level.

They have risen by almost 27,000 (8 per cent) over the past five years and are due to peak in 2024 with just over 408,000 pupils, almost 30,000 higher than in 2020.

Second level

Second level student numbers are projected to fall gradually at second level after 2024, with enrolments set to drop by 2,900 in 2026 and by 7,700 in 2029.

When these numbers are broken down by year group, the number of students entering first year is projected to rise by 1,000 in 2021, and then will begin to fluctuate slightly in 2022 and 2023, with a greater fall from 2024. By the end of the projection period, there will be 17,000 fewer pupils entering first year than in 2021.

At Leaving Cert level, there will be 63,000 pupils enrolled in the 2021/2022 academic year, some 3,227 more than in 2020, while the projected peak year for Leaving Cert sittings is 2026 with 70,547 pupils.

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