So do we have too many school places or too few?

The front page of today’s Daily Mirror has the headline ‘Soaring student numbers means Northern Ireland needs almost 300 new classrooms, study shows‘. From the story:

Research from public sector procurement specialist Scape shows a sharp rise in the number of school-age children, with an extra 7,332 pupils expected to start secondary school in 2020/21.

According to the report, the 9.4% rise means Northern Ireland urgently needs to build the equivalent of eight new schools to accommodate its pupils.

But you may be wondering, I thought we had a massive over capacity with school places? Indeed it is estimated that there are over 50,000 empty places in NI schools, around a sixth of all available places. For years we have been told we need to close and merge schools, so what is going on?

Two years ago, Scape,  which produced the report, also said Wales needs 300 extra classrooms. A bit odd that they said the same number for both regions…

I had a chat with my local friendly teacher’s union rep to find out what is going on. Like most things in life, it’s a little more complicated than you first imagine.

The empty places figure is based on the theoretical capacity of the school. So if a school was built, say, in 1970 to hold 600 kids, and if today it has 400 kids then it has 200 empty places. BUT this does not mean you walk into a classroom and see lots of empty desks. Over time demographics change and fewer kids are born, schools decide to remove some classrooms and make computer suites or sensory rooms (they are all the rage now). You get the idea. The EA is meant to be reviewing all capacity figures to make them more realistic. If you are curious, there is a website called Schools Plus that lists all the schools in Northern Ireland and their enrollment statistics.

Then you have economic changes. There is a high demand for schools in Dungannon due to immigrants coming in to work in the various factories; but declining demand in the Ballymena area due to factory closures there. More people are living in Belfast, thus increasing the demand there. You get the idea.

As you can imagine it can be a tricky business to grow and expand schools on demand. But the EA and our various education bodies have the demographic data that should enable them to very accurately anticipant demand. If 100 babies are born in a town then its a pretty safe bet to say that in 4 years time 100 kids will be needing primary 1 places, and in 11 years time, they will be needing secondary places. So really none of this should be coming as a shock to anyone.

But as we know, local people and thus local politicians go buck daft at any reduction or changes to local schools. So it is a tricky one to manage.

Talking to some teachers they say the main strain on the system going forward is dealing with the ever-increasing amounts of special needs children. As well as the clinical conditions like autism, ADHD etc they are also seeing more kids with general behavioural, emotional and developmental issues. If you are a teacher I would be keen to hear your experiences, add your comments below.

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