SOME of the country's smallest rural schools could be shut down as part of a drive to save millions of euro in the education budget, it has been learned.
The closure of some of the country's 570 two-teacher schools -- one in six of the nation's primary schools -- will be examined in a wide-ranging value-for-money review.
Some of these schools have as few as seven pupils on their roll book, while 99 others have 20 pupils or fewer.
Many are located close to other schools, raising question marks about whether they can be amalgamated to save money.
The Department of Education last night confirmed it was commencing a value-for-money review of small primary schools and explicitly referred to the possibility of "school closures".
The Bord Snip Nua group estimated merging the 659 primary schools with fewer than 50 pupils would save €18m in teachers' wages, due to the grouping of children into standard class sizes which would require 200 fewer teachers.
Many of the two-teacher schools get grants of at least €30,000 annually for their running costs alone -- bringing the total bill to in excess of €20m.
The Department of Education said there were no plans to carry out large-scale school closures "at this time".
However, this means the next government will be left with the task of implementing the recommendations of the review once it is completed.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed there were 570 primary schools with two teachers, out of around 3,200 primary schools in the country.
Galway has 67 two-teacher schools -- the highest number in the country -- followed by Mayo (66), Donegal (57), Cork (46) and Kerry (40).
In total, there are 17,615 pupils being taught in two-teacher schools.
An Irish Independent investigation has uncovered several examples of two-teacher schools with small pupil numbers which are located close to other schools.
The smallest is Rathmorrell (eight pupils), followed by ScoilChriost Ri (41 pupils) and Cill Iuraigh national school (41 pupils).
Labour education spokesman Ruairi Quinn welcomed the review, saying the country was not getting "value for money" from the current set up.
Mr Quinn said he favoured clustering small schools together, so they could look at options such as having all the children in junior classes taught in one school and those in senior classes taught in another nearby.
He also said they could share secretaries and a board of management.
Education Minister Mary Coughlan will oversee the review. The Irish National Teachers' Organisation said small schools were a central part of life in rural Ireland.