Northern Ireland

Rise in empty places in NI schools, NI Audit Office report finds

Image caption The number of empty places in Northern Ireland's schools now totals over 71,000, the report has found

The number of empty places in schools in Northern Ireland has risen to about one fifth of the entire number of places available.

That is the finding of a Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report that is critical of the Department of Education's efforts to reduce the number of empty places.

The report also said school "leadership in post-primaries" must be improved.

There are also too many small schools in Northern Ireland, it added.

However, the report also said that the department does not have a standard method for calculating school capacity.

It found that, although they need additional funding, "there is no evidence that educational attainment at small schools is better than their larger counterparts".

The report, from the auditor general Kieran Donnelly, into the sustainability of schools takes as its starting point a review of education in Northern Ireland carried out by Sir George Bain in 2006.

It charts progress on some of the measures highlighted in that review.


The Bain review found that there were about 53,000 surplus places in schools in Northern Ireland, about 15% of school capacity.

It recommended the number of empty places should not exceed 10% of the school population.

However, the NIAO found that the number of empty places now totals over 71,000, about 20% of capacity.

Image caption Auditor general Kieran Donnelly's report said "leadership and management is not good enough" in a significant minority of post-primary schools

It said that is "unacceptably high", and it criticises the Department of Education for not setting any targets for reducing the number of empty places in schools, or knowing how much those empty places cost.

Children with statements of special educational needs are excluded from the figures, for instance, so the number of surplus places may be "overstated".

The NIAO also sais that while there have been improvements in school performance, over a third of pupils leave school with fewer than five A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths.

It said that "the quality of leadership and management is not good enough in a significant minority of post-primary schools", and that there are "persistent shortcomings" in the quality of teaching in some schools.


Using figures from the chief inspector of schools, the report said that "overall effectiveness needs to improve in the 37% of the post-primary schools inspected which were evaluated as less than good".

It said that these shortcomings need to be "addressed urgently if the provision and outcomes are to improve from average to world-class".

The Bain review also recommended target enrolments for schools, and concluded that fewer larger schools were needed.

It said that the minimum enrolment for primary schools should be 140 in urban areas and 105 in rural areas.

For post-primary schools, the minimum numbers in years eight to 12 should be 500 and for those with a sixth form there should be a minimum of 100 pupils in the sixth form.

The NIAO said that 36% of primary schools here still have fewer than 105 pupils, while 47% of post-primaries have fewer than 500 pupils in years eight to 12.


It found that "there are still too many small schools which require additional funding".

Small schools get extra money from the Department of Education to enable them to deliver all of the curriculum.

In 2014-15, about £36m - 3% of the overall school budget - was extra money allocated to small schools.

The audit office report said "this can be seen as a grant to maintain a school which is financially unsustainable".

It also said that "there is no demonstrable evidence that educational attainment at small schools is better than their larger counterparts".

However, the report did not say that smaller schools perform worse than larger ones.

The report recommends a number of improvements to the Department of Education's sustainable schools policy and area planning.

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