Editorial: Protecting rural schools
"WHILE aiming to support sustainable rural provision, there are still too many small/unsustainable schools."
Contained within the Education Authority's 'draft area plan' for the next five years is this conundrum for those charged with mapping out our school estate.
Ireland is an island full of vibrant rural communities; they are an essential part of who we are. More than a third of the population still lives in the countryside and parents place great value on local schools and services.
With the right management and support, small rural schools can provide high quality education in a nurturing environment.
A good school also helps maintain those communities by attracting young families and providing good employment in a variety of roles.
It is no surprise, therefore, that any move to close or amalgamate a school is often met with fierce opposition.
Against this, schools require a certain number of pupils to be financially viable. Birth rates change, populations move, and all children are entitled to a broad and balanced education in modern facilities.
Pupils may thrive in small classes combining two year groups but when three or more years are brought together, learning may be compromised.
At post-primary level in particular, it is hard for smaller schools to cater for the huge range of curriculum options on offer to young people today.
Almost half of the north's 1,000 schools are classed as rural but almost half of those do not meet the threshold for sustainability - a minimum of 105 pupils at primary level and 500 at post-primary.
And although cost is only one consideration, the average amount spent on a pupil in a primary school with less than 60 children is around £5,000 – compared to just £3,500 for those with 100-200.
To an outsider, an obvious way to make better use of resources is to reduce duplication by bringing small schools from different sectors under one roof.
However, attempts to share facilities have often hit obstacles and the integrated sector still only educates a small percentage of the school population.
The future shape and size of schools will ultimately be informed by wider examinations of our education system, with a major independent review currently under way.
Whether the political will exists to implement its recommendations remains to be seen. But in a time of limited resources, it is clear we will need to be more imaginative if we are to protect our valuable network of rural schools.