FIVE education boards on Tuesday have outlined their draft proposals on the future of primary schools in Northern Ireland.
And 846 are under threat which could see some of them closing.
Those facing closure are because they do not meet the Education Minister’s criteria for enrolments of 105 pupils in rural areas and 140 in urban areas.
Many have been asked to find local area solutions.
Under the draft proposals, if primary schools don’t amalgamate then they could be shut down.
One Belfast primary school is facing closure.
The Belfast Education and Library Board says Ballysillan Primary School in north Belfast is set to shut.
One angry parent told Belfast Daily: “It is an absolute disgrace.
“Surely there must be a way of keeping it open. If it does shut, where will the children go?
“It will be a big loss to the entire community.”
A consultation has been opened and Education Minister John O’Dowd has asked members of the public to give their views on the proposals in a public consultation that will continue until the end of June.
Commenting on the publication of the draft plans, the Minister said: “In my statement to the Assembly on 26 February I announced a range of actions to take forward the next phase of area planning, including a consultation on the draft primary area plans.
“I note that the Boards have published their plans today and I encourage anyone with an interest in education in their local area to examine the plans and make their views known. A dedicated website, which includes a detailed questionnaire, has been set up on which people can leave any comment they wish on the plans.”
The plans and consultation response questionnaire are available on the Putting Pupils First website or in hard copy on request from individual Education and Library Boards.
The Minister went on to highlight his aims for the consultation period, saying: “It is my intention that these plans will inform wide-ranging discussion and dialogue at local level. This is an opportunity for an informed and mature debate that will shape future primary education provision and help identify local solutions that will benefit all children and young people. I hope to hear innovative ideas, including the consideration of possible sharing of accommodation and resources.”
“I encourage anyone with an interest in education in their local area to examine the plans and make their views known,” the Sinn Féin minister said.
The boards have been asked to look at schools which have falling numbers, have consistently come in over budget or have poor educational standards.
In Belfast alone there are more than 10,000 spaces at schools which have not been filled.
Some have a history of overspending their budget – some of the school have overspent by as much as 50%. Many will face closure or could be merged.
The union Unison said the plans should not lead to teachers, staff or pupils having to suffer.
“At a time of worsening austerity, welfare reform and low pay, school support staff are fearful. We believe these workers should not suffer as a result of these mergers. We believe they should be protected,” said a Unison spokesperson.
“The obligation is now on the Education and Library Boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and other schools to consult with staff and trade unions promptly in order to resolve post retention, redeployment or compensation as appropriate”.
Meanwhile the largest teachers union, NASUWT, said the plans are likely to cause “widespread concern” for parents and teachers alike.
The scale of these proposals demonstrates that this has been an issue which unfortunately politicians and employers have failed to grasp in the past.
Chris Keates, General Secretary, added: “Handled correctly these proposals present a real opportunity to enhance educational provision.
“Handled badly, they will generate a chaotic free for all and the workforce and children and young people will be the casualties.
“Employers and the Assembly must take note that the NASUWT will not accept the proposals being used as a crude cost-cutting exercise and will expect them to address seriously the concerns about job loss and excessive workload, which are being generated by the reorganisation plans.”
Danny Kinahan, the deputy chair of the Education committee, said the proposals were a cause for grave concern and described them as a “daunting change” to the education system in NI.
“Sustained periods of uncertainty within the system are not helping teachers who simply want to get on with the job of teaching. It also creates confusion for parents and pupils,” he said.
The UUP MLA called for an overall plan that would make the proposals clear.
“Schools are worried that the Minister is seeking to implement a hit-list of schools for closure.
“They need direction from the Education Minister, something which is lacking at the moment. The educational welfare of the pupil needs to come first,” added Mr Kinahan.