Rural Schools - “Sustainability is an issue"

More Rural Schools Identified where “Sustainability is an issue”

RCN’s Policy Officer Aidan Campbell looks at the recent announcement by the Education Authority of potential school closures and questions the approach to area planning.

The Education Authority (EA) released its second Annual Area Planning Action Plan recently.  The accompanying statement quoted the EA Education Director John Collings saying:
“The challenge that faces education in relation to area planning is that we have many schools that are too small to adequately provide pupils with access to a broad and balanced curriculum, …In many areas of Northern Ireland there are too many school places for the size of the population, while in other areas, there are not enough places.”

The action plan identifies 70 separate “work streams“ and states that one third of these relate to “sustainability issues” in 27 named schools across 3 areas.  The action plan identifies issues across all school types and all areas but the majority of schools where sustainability is an issue are in rural communities. 

The words closure or amalgamation don’t appear anywhere in the document representing a change of tone from previous announcements.  The action plan states that schools may be identified as being part of a solution to a sustainability issue in their area. When the Education and Library Boards carried out their initial viability audits of schools in 2012 to prepare for area planning schools were highlighted in red if they failed to meet targets set on the three criteria of enrolments, academic performance and financial viability.  The language has become more nuanced but this approach will still be unsettling for the parents, staff and governors of those schools identified. 

There are significant numbers of rural primary schools with enrolments that are well under the target set of 105 pupils.  For some of those schools closure or amalgamation may be the best option to provide a better quality education for children in that area.  All stakeholders are agreed that a decision to close or amalgamate isn’t solely about enrolments.  Other factors in deciding if a school is sustainable are quality of educational experience, strong leadership, accessibility and strong links with the community.  Any proposals for closure must be consulted on by the Education Authority and that will be a very difficult conversation in any rural community.  However the blow of potential closure may be softened if parents and communities are more involved in planning for what happens next. 

The EA still doesn’t seem to be taking a true “area-based” approach to planning the future schools estate in rural areas.  Using District Council areas as boundaries is largely meaningless for parents as most primary schools draw pupils from a very local catchment area.  Even the largest post-primary schools will draw the majority of their pupils from only part of a District Council area.  Area planning for schools isn’t just a technical exercise, the data is important, but it should be used to inform a meaningful engagement with schools, parents and communities to develop the schools estate we need.