Posted 16 December 2022
Dr. Stephen Roulston from the University of Ulster writes about the Future Schools Programme
As you travel around Northern Ireland, in corners of the countryside you will often come across small rural primary schools serving the surrounding community, just as they should. Except, being Northern Ireland, it is a little different to elsewhere because there are often two of them, with a different primary school for each community. This may be exactly what some parents want, but the size of the local population is often just about enough to keep one school going. And sometimes not even that. Keeping two is often just too big a challenge and there is a danger that both schools may eventually be lost in that community.
This is a real and increasing challenge in many rural areas. Schools are part of a dwindling supply of services in the countryside where shops, post-offices, banks, GP surgeries, pubs, petrol stations and local halls have all come under pressure or closed. In parallel with the disappearance of these, comes a decline in population. These communities are often in attractive countryside. They feel safe, and the neighbours are welcoming, so you would think these areas would hold onto their population and even attract people from outside to live there. The loss of services makes these areas less attractive to young people to stay or to move there and, perhaps, to raise a family there. As the young move towards the towns and cities, the age profile of the area changes and services become under even more pressure. The local school, or schools, are often at the heart of these communities – they mean much more than a sound educational start in life, important as that is. They may be the key reason for a rural community surviving or even thriving.
It is this background that the Future Schools project, supported by project partner the Integrated Education Fund with funding from the Community Foundation of Northern Ireland, is designed to address. How can communities be better prepared to make sure that a school remains in their local area and that it continues to meet the needs of current and future parents? How can local people try to make sure that the heart of their community is strong and healthy, with a long life ahead of it?
People are often passionate about their local school – it is the place where they went as children, and their parents and grand-parents before them. Understandably, they do not want to see it close. A neighbour who is a member of the other community will feel exactly the same about ‘their’ school. The danger is that the area can often only justify one school. The education authorities may understand the close ties that communities have with their schools but they have to manage schools in a sustainable fashion. They will find it difficult to justify keeping a school open when numbers of pupils are small and dwindling and when the long-term future of the school looks bleak.
The Future Schools programme has been developed at Ulster University. Designed to give communities a voice and to help schools – and local communities – better prepare for an otherwise uncertain future, it provides a checklist of what schools need to demonstrate their sustainability, and provides a mechanism for the local community – and that is all of the local community – to say what they think is possible to keep primary education going in their area. The Future Schools team have worked with parents, school principals, school governors, political representatives and statutory authorities to produce a toolkit for schools and communities to use (https://www.ulster.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/1201186/UU-Future-Schools-Toolkit-Web.pdf).
There are three steps in the toolkit:
- A self-evaluation checklist for schools and school governors to use – how well is our school doing and where are the weaknesses and strengths?
- An outline of a Community Conversation process, to allow the views of the whole community in an area to have a say on what their preferred preference for primary education might be – this could be ‘no change’ or other options such as Federation, Transformation, Amalgamation or a Jointly Managed Faith School.
- Details on the Pathways and Processes should one of the four options be chosen by the community, including where to get information about what the change would mean, and what would be required to make that change.
Local communities and the schools can begin to prepare for that inevitable knock on the door. They can make a case for the continuation of their schools, and come up with a plan of how they can ensure some form of primary school provision remains in their area. They can have their voice heard and they can help to decide what happens in their community. And the stakes are high. Will their community be a place in which people want to stay or even move to from outside… can the community keep the present arrangements going ? Or would some other option be preferred? And if it is another option, how does a community even start? The Future Schools Toolkit is there to help.
Dr Stephen Roulston, in partnership with Dr Una O’Connor-Bones, Dr Clare McAuley and
Dr Jessica Bates, all from the School of Education, Ulster University.
Details of the Future Schools Project is available here