Number of pupils entering education system in Northern Ireland continues to increase despite funding cuts

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It was announced in the run up to the 2018/19 academic year that primary schools in Northern Ireland would be receiving £56 less per pupil. The cuts to funding would leave education in Northern Ireland “at crisis point” said one primary school Principal. By analysing the steady trend in increasing pupil numbers, we can see the impact that the effect of these recent funding cuts could have on primary education in Northern Ireland.

To begin with, I wanted to provide an insight into primary school pupil numbers across the eleven local districts of Northern Ireland (including a comparison of male and female numbers) to see which areas are potentially over or under-resourced.

My finalised dataset shows the number of male and female pupil numbers for each local district. Additionally, I added a further column which tallies together these numbers to provide the total number of children who attended primary school in each district for the academic year of 2018/19.

It is essential that the data used for my analysis was taken from a reliable source. Therefore I thought it appropriate to source the information from the Department of Education, as not only do they store factually correct data, but also keep their records updated year by year. Thankfully, I was able to find statistics based on the most recent full academic year* which provides my analysis with a degree of relevancy.

Ideally, I would like to provide statistics on pupil numbers in each year group from primary one through to primary seven. However, I was unable to source data related to this.

My reasoning for choosing this area to analyse is based on the fact that the number of pupils attending primary educational establishments in Northern Ireland rose by over 20,000 between the academic years of 2010/11 and 2017/18, therefore I wanted to see whether this trend continued into 2018/19. Based on my findings, numbers once again increased through 2018/19 to 184,245 pupils.

In response to the ever growing number of pupils, I was intrigued to find out whether or not enough resources are available (i.e. funding and spaces in schools, etc.) to cope with this continued increase, and what the process is which decides which areas are requiring an increase or reduction of spaces available for children entering the education system.

I spoke to Carol Straghan, the Acting Primary Admissions Officer of the Education Authority, who are ‘responsible for delivering education services across Northern Ireland’ about the process of deciding which areas are over and under-resourced.

“The number of P1 applications has been steady over recent school years. The majority of children are placed at their parents’ first preference school (97.32% in 2018/19). Each primary school has an admissions number (P1 pupils which can be admitted) and enrolment number (total number of pupils a school can accept) which is set by the Department of Education. There is a temporary variation process which schools may use to request an additional places to admit additional children in years when the number of applications can fluctuate”, she said.

Carol then pointed me in the direction of Area Planning, which identifies the challenges for the education system throughout each district area and ‘aims to establish a network of viable schools that are of the right type, the right size, are located in the right place, and have a focus on raising standards.’ The main challenges facing the Education Authority regarding Area Planning is that in some areas of Northern Ireland there are too many school places for the size of the population, while in other areas there are not enough places.

Janis Scallon, Head of Sustainable Schools Policy and Planning Directorate at the Department of Education, explained to me about how these findings are used to inaugurate changes.

“When these planning actions result in published Development Proposals (a statutory process) the Department becomes directly engaged and ultimately provides advice to the Minister which results in permanent changes being made.  The Department also has powers to make temporary changes to the numbers of places available at schools in response to short-term pressures”, she said.

As the number of pupils in primary education across Northern Ireland continues to grow at a steady rate each year, area planning is essential to ensure that schools are given the appropriate resources required, especially as Northern Ireland has faced the highest school spending cuts per pupil in the UK over the past decade. With the uncertainty surrounding funding, having strategic plans put in place will help guarantee that pupils entering the education system will be able to attend the school of their parent’s choice.

The data used for this analysis was sourced from the Department of Education. Their website has an extensive amount of datasets related to all aspects of schooling, from enrolment data to the percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals. Their data applies across all levels of schooling. The particular dataset used in this instance can be found by accessing the following link: https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/school-enrolment-school-level-data-201819.

*As of time of writing (03/03/20), information for the 2019/20 academic year has not yet been released.

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