Still 70,000 empty desks in schools after decade of closures
ALMOST 70,000 empty desks still remain in the north's classrooms after a decade in which 141 schools disappeared.
Education minister Peter Weir has warned of further closures, claiming there are too many schools with too few pupils.
The Education Authority (EA) has launched a fresh drive to shake up the system by shutting, merging and expanding schools.
Its draft area plan for 2017-2020 will look at primary, post-primary and special education.
Since the government accepted in 2007 the recommendations of the Bain Report on sustainable schools, 141 have been approved for closure or amalgamation.
There have been 83 schools shut down by consecutive education ministers, while a further 58 have been involved in mergers.
But figures provided to The Irish News reveal that even after these closures, there are 66,556 "available places" across the north - about 45,000 of them in primary schools.
Mr Weir made a statement to the assembly last week about the latest area planning exercise.
"There are too many schools with too few pupils to generate sufficient funds to deliver the curriculum to an acceptable level. It is a real issue particularly in schools with very small sixth forms," the DUP minister said.
"As a result limited available resources are being spread too thinly in an attempt to ensure that in small schools every pupil has access to the curriculum."
Mr Weir said unsustainable provision in all sectors had to be tackled.
By the end of the EA's consultation, it is hoped that the issue of primary pupils being taught in composite classes of more than two year groups will be addressed.
The minister said he would like to see communities with a vibrant sustainable primary school where each pupil is in a class with a single year group.
It is also hoped to devise proposals to deal with post-primary schools that are failing to provide a broad and balance curriculum for pupils.
By 2020, Mr Weir said, no pupil should be in a sixth form with fewer than 100 pupils that cannot offer a full range of courses.
"Pupils' needs must come first. And if that means that some schools have to close then I am prepared to take those difficult decisions," he said.
EA director of education John Collings said the core purpose of area planning was to ensure a network of sustainable schools "that are the right type, the right size and are located in the right place".