The Irish Times view on declining school enrolments : an opportunity to be ambitious
Pupil numbers are on course to decline sharply over the coming 15 years. If policy makers grasp the opportunity, there is a chance to lower class sizes and boost capitation funding and make primary education genuinely free
After more than two decades of growing enrolments in primary schools, pupil numbers are on course to decline sharply over the coming 15 years. Latest Department of Education projections show the proportion of children attending primary school is likely to drop by about 20 per cent – or more than 100,000 pupils – by 2034. The reduction is linked to declining fertility rates and migration patterns.
On the face of it, these projections make for bleak reading. The steep decline in pupil numbers risks leading to surplus numbers of teachers and could threaten the future of many small schools. Ireland has the highest proportion of small schools in Europe: almost half have four teachers or fewer, yet they account for just 15 per cent of pupil numbers. In many cases, these schools are the heartbeat of local communities which have suffered from the closure of pubs, post-offices and other services.
Ironically, one of the biggest challenges in other primary schools are overcrowded classrooms. We languish towards the very bottom of the league table of pupil-teacher ratios in Europe. OECD figures also indicate investment in education in the State as a percentage of national wealth languishes at the bottom end of the league table for wealthy countries. It remains a scandal that we still have not fully realised basic policies that almost every developed society in the world takes for granted, such as free primary education.
However, the projected decline provides decision makers with a rare opportunity. At a minimum, falling enrolments provide a chance to - finally - reduce class sizes by simply retaining the overall number of teachers employed in the primary school system.
With additional funding and political will, we can go further still. Proper levels of investment could, finally, make primary education genuinely free. We could ensure there are enough appropriate school places for pupils special needs. And we could help ensure every child has the best chance of reaching their full potential. There is no better time to grasp the opportunity.