Department confirms existence of supersized classes in every county

The recently-published Department of Education Statistical Bulletin and associated documents shed valuable light on pupil numbers and large class sizes in Irish primary schools.

While the average primary class size has fallen to its lowest ever level at 22.8 (from 23.3 in 2020/21) it still remains almost three pupils per class higher than the EU average class size of 20 (Education at a Glance – OECD 2021).

Notably, 83 percent of Ireland’s primary pupils are taught in classes which are above the EU average class size figure of 20. Significantly, 12 percent (66,104) of pupils are in supersized classes of 30 or more.

Nation’s shame

Although the then Government announced a cap of 30 pupils per class from September 1999, some 23 years later – to our nation’s great shame – we still have 2,120 classes with 30 or more pupils in the Republic of Ireland. These supersized classes include children with special educational needs who are correctly placed in inclusive mainstream classes but who would especially benefit from smaller class sizes.

The areas with the highest average class sizes are Fingal (24.9), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Kildare (both 24.3). It is particularly noteworthy that average class sizes in every county are higher than the EU average. All except five counties have some classes with 35 or more pupils. The remaining five counties also have some classes with more than 30 pupils. The local authority areas with the smallest average class size are Longford (20.6), Mayo (21), Clare, Cork City and Kerry (all 21.4).

Research has shown again and again that lower class sizes benefit children who are educationally disadvantaged. While average class sizes are lower in DEIS schools, 52 percent of pupils in DEIS Band 1 schools are in classes above the EU average of 20.

Essential investment needed

Total enrolment in primary schools continues to fall, but not as sharply as the Department of Education (DE) had projected. The total enrolment in primary schools stands at 554,788, down 6,623 on 2020. However, the most recent (November 2021) projections from the DE projected a fall of 8,920 for 2021, but these numbers do not include the 5,043 Ukrainian pupils who had enrolled in primary schools by 30 June 2022.

Primary education continues to need significant investment to ensure that our children get the education they deserve.

In a letter to An Taoiseach this week, INTO General Secretary John Boyle wrote:

“The vast majority of our young children with additional needs attend their local primary schools and learn alongside their peers in mainstream classes. Considering this, I remain convinced that the key to supporting inclusion properly is to reduce class sizes to the EU average of 20 pupils in ordinary schools with pro-rata reductions in DEIS Band One schools. I believe that until such time as this becomes a reality, the additional resources Government has put in place to support inclusion will not, unfortunately, have the desired effect.

The OECD has found a direct correlation between class size and learning outcomes. Our call for class sizes to be reduced to the EU average of 20 children per class would benefit all pupils and particularly those with additional needs or from disadvantaged communities.

By delivering a two-point reduction in the staffing schedule on budget day, it is clear that your Government could then rightfully claim that class sizes will be reduced to the EU average from September 2023. Consequently, the problems associated with very large classes would finally be solved.

When you were Minister for Education in 1999, you announced a very significant class size reduction and capped maximum class sizes at 30 pupils. Government now has a great opportunity to achieve the long-sought milestone of 20 pupils per class. I urge you to seize this opportunity.”

In our pre-budget submission, the INTO is calling on Government to invest in primary education. Irish children should have the same, equal opportunities as their EU counterparts. This can be achieved by reducing class size by two points in all schools, including DEIS Band One schools, on Budget day next month.