More mergers between small Catholic and controlled schools would save money and benefit pupils and communities, according to newly published research.
The Ulster University report identified 32 pairs of schools offering “primary aged education to two different communities… often only yards apart”.
That led to an unnecessary duplication of primary schools in some areas of Northern Ireland, it said.
The 64 primary schools identified by the researchers are not named.
But they are mainly in rural areas, and many had pupil numbers below the 105 recommended by the Department of Education’s sustainable schools policy.
“Duplication occurs where a controlled school and a maintained school are located close to each other, often in small settlements,” said the report by UU’s Unesco Centre.
Pupils in the 32 Catholic Maintained schools identified in the study were almost all from a Catholic background.
The majority of pupils in the 32 controlled schools were from a non-Catholic background.
“Having small settlements or rural areas with two primary schools, each serving their own community, is not uncommon in Northern Ireland,” said the report.
The authors, Dr Stephen Roulston and Dr Sally Cooke, estimated that duplication in the 64 schools they identified cost an extra £2.3m a year.
That is because, although many of the schools were small, they still employed a number of staff delivering the same services.
“Sometimes on-site catering is provided at each school which requires a cook and other staff,” they said.
“Schools invariably have a number of classroom assistants, a secretary, a building supervisor/caretaker and a range of other staff.”
“While many of these staff may be part-time, particularly in the case of the smaller schools, duplication is still inevitable.”
The report also said that the teacher-to-pupil ratio was also much lower in the 64 schools than the Northern Ireland average.
It said that while collaboration between schools in shared education should be encouraged it did not address the problem of duplication.
The authors said that small rural schools could be efficient and could deliver an excellent education.
“The argument here is not that small schools should necessarily close, but that more effective local arrangements can be made, particularly in situations where schools are located very close to each other and are duplicating what they do,” it concluded.
“There is potential for small communities to retain a single integrated school rather than risk closure of two unsustainable schools currently catering separately to each community.
“Often such schools would still be small enough to offer the advantages that small schools are thought to provide, while being of a scale which allows some of the benefits of larger schools.”
“There is growing evidence that long-divided communities can collaborate and decide on future educational provision together.”
The research – Isolated Together: Pairs of Primary Schools Duplicating Provision – was carried out independently but the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) contributed to its publishing costs.
The IEF chief executive, Tina Merron, said it was an important examination of the structure of the education system.