THE age at which children start school will be raised to five -- and transition year at second-level will be abolished -- under dramatic plans being considered by the Government.
Documents obtained by the Irish Independent show the drastic measures are on the table in a desperate attempt to reduce the €9bn annual education bill.
A €3,000 flat-rate college fee to replace registration fees is also being considered, although grants would be provided to support the less well-off.
If the plan to prevent children entering school until they reach the age of five was implemented this year, it would cut the number of children beginning school from 60,000 to 20,000.
But it would lead to chaos for parents making plans for their children to begin school at the age of four, forcing them to make childcare arrangements for another 12 months.
The proposal to abolish transition year would result in no immediate savings -- but €84m would be saved four years later thanks to a cut in teacher numbers.
The revelations come as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn yesterday signalled that dire cuts would be needed in education spending due to the state of the country's finances.
"We do have a problem and it's a problem that confronts the entire Government," he said.
"We are going to have to cut our cloth."
The proposals are among 12 cost-cutting measures put forward by Department of Education officials.
Other proposals included in the documents -- which were submitted to the Department of Finance -- have already been introduced, including increasing the teacher-pupil ratio and an increase in college registration fees.
Mr Quinn yesterday refused to rule out an increase in registration fees or a return to college fees.
"What I want to do is to ensure that as many people as possible who qualify for third-level get the quality of education that they need and they require," he said.
"That does cost money and I will be talking to the third-level sector about it. But I am realistic and I think the country has to be realistic as well."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education also declined to say if any of the proposals put forward by department officials had been ruled in or out -- but said that everything was under examination.
She said that a comprehensive review of expenditure (CRE) was "currently ongoing" and that "under the CRE all areas of public expenditure are subject to scrutiny".
The proposals outlined in the documents are unlikely to be introduced in the 2011/2012 academic year because of the level of upheaval they would cause to teachers, pupils and parents.
Outlining the savings that could be achieved by raising the school age, the document warns that there will be "likely widespread opposition from parents".
At present, a child must be aged between four and six to begin school. It is at the parents' discretion to decide when they should begin.
The document says there would be a delay in achieving savings due to redeployment issues, as well as a bulge in enrolments if the policy were reversed at a later stage.
Other issues outlined included "educational issues for pupils not starting school until a later stage", especially for children with special needs.
The savings would be achieved by reducing the number of pupils entering the primary system, meaning fewer teachers would be needed for junior infant classes. As these pupils move through the system, more teachers could be cut year by year. Fewer pupil numbers would mean more classes would be amalgamated. It would take eight years for that initial intake of children to work their way through the primary system and for full savings to be made.
Details of the potential savings show that €3.5m would be saved in the first year by reducing enrolment numbers by 40,000, rising to €74m in year four. A total of €116m would be saved over four years but no details were given of how many teaching posts would be cut.
However, the document does outline how a total of 1,500 teaching posts would be cut if transition year is abolished, while pupil numbers would be reduced by 28,500.
No immediate savings would be made because students are currently in the system -- but four years later it would save €84m by taking an entire year out of secondary school.
However, department officials have acknowledged that this would cause problems. It would end "important opportunities" for pupils to "strengthen their employability" and would reduce the opportunity for student enterprise, which is needed to boost the smart economy.
Officials also warned that it could lead to a bulge in third-level enrolments, "particularly if implemented all at once". A phased approach to avoid this would lead to difficulties in deciding "which schools and students will lose out first".
Other cost-cutting plans included in the submission outlined further reductions in grants and scholarships by increments of 1pc.
There are also plans for introducing a flat-rate fee of €3,000 for third-level education. It is estimated the increase would save €82m annually.
The plans were originally outlined last year and were released under the Freedom of Information Act.