Rural Communities to Engage on Rural Schools
Rural Community Network Urge Rural Communities to Engage in the Debate on Rural Schools.
RCN is encouraging local communities to get involved in the consultation on area planning for primary schools which has just been launched across NI. Only 31 of 839 primary schools have been identified for closure in this first phase of area planning. Scores of other schools have been identified as requiring a local/parish solution in order to remain open. There is no doubt that budget pressures within the Department coupled with falling enrolments due to demographic change means there is a need to re-organise. However RCN would query the accuracy of the quoted figure of 63,000 empty desks in the primary sector. Many schools in the area plans are identified as having large numbers of unfilled places (empty desks) but RCN would query the ability of many of the schools to accommodate the number of places identified.
The potential closure of large numbers of rural schools could have a huge impact on rural sustainability across NI. The Minister and his Department are focused on the provision of quality education to every child and RCN is fully supportive of this ambition. However the closure of rural schools for educational or cost reasons will have a detrimental effect on rural communities which have endured the closure of post offices, banks, shops and other services over the past 30 years. The Department must be careful to ensure that the closure of schools serving minority communities does not result in increased segregation in rural areas. In our view, the cost savings of closing rural schools are not clear cut as most education funding (almost 80% of the Aggregated Schools Budget) attaches to the pupils who will still need to be educated if their school closes. Additional transport costs will accrue if schools in rural areas are closed or amalgamated, and in some cases, remaining schools will need to be renovated or expanded to cope with a larger intake. We believe clearer information on cost savings and travel implications for young children in rural communities need to be factored into the debate.
Area planning can be viewed as a threat to rural schools and rural sustainability. However we can choose to view area planning as an opportunity for schools, parents and the wider community to shape this debate and to get together to agree innovative solutions - should they be federations, amalgamations or shared solutions to secure the future of sustainable educational provision in rural communities. There’s no doubt that further school closures will be announced as area planning will be a rolling process over the next five years. The Minister and the Department have said they are willing to listen. Rural communities need to engage with this debate now to shape the changes or else change will be imposed on them.