Small rural schools ‘need to be integrated’

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Keeping many rural schools in Northern Ireland open will require merging them into integrated education, a leading funding expert said.

Sir Robert Salisbury completed a review of how schooling is paid for on behalf of the Department of Education in 2013.

He said: “However unpalatable to some, amalgamations and closures of small schools are inevitable because as numbers of pupils decline, establishments become costly to maintain, have a restricted curriculum and can only provide a limited sporting, cultural and educational experience.

“Our divided system exacerbates this and in truth, keeping many rural schools open will only be achieved by merging schools into ‘integrated’ establishments.

“Communities threatened with any school closure should always be given the option to consider a cross-sector amalgamation in order to maintain a school in the area, rather than accepting the present ‘segregated’ area planning process which is now in place.”

He said change will have to come because Northern Ireland has too many small schools and too many types of school which can no longer be funded.

“For example Omagh has six post-primary schools with salaries, buildings costs etc, and Retford in Nottinghamshire, with an almost identical population, has two.

“Replicate this across Northern Ireland and the financial implications are obvious.

“Teachers and governors frequently complain about the lack of funding to run their schools properly, but in fact there is ample money in the system overall, but with so many schools to maintain, resources are spread too thinly.”

Sir Robert said shared education had become fashionable but would have little long-term impact.

“Some schemes are clearly designed as a survival device to protect small schools which may be under threat, thus prolonging the issues raised above.

“Though educational outcomes are usually reported as very positive, they are often ill-defined and difficult to quantify and prompt the obvious question that if these schemes work so well on restricted contact, why not fully integrate?

“Logistically, ‘shared’ educational schemes do not offer a permanent solution because planning joint timetables, arranging transport of staff and students quickly begins to exert a negative influence on the rest of the school.

“There is usually a substantial financial cost to all of this, especially transport, and it is reasonable to ask, if the funding ceases in the future, is the initiative likely to survive?

“Some schemes which have young people sharing the same building but having different uniforms and entering by separate doors are patently absurd and a better way to perpetuate difference is hard to imagine.”

He said though virtually every political or educational observer from outside Northern Ireland sees its divided educational system as one of the root causes of tensions, most political and religious leaders continually deny this and resist the development of an integrated system.

“Repeatedly, they have been urged to consider schooling which educates all of our young people together because it is fairly obvious that separating children, often from the age of three, into different schools, clearly divides communities and creates misunderstanding and prejudice.”

He said it was difficult to change entrenched attitudes and if the current system was successful there might be virtue in sticking with the status quo, but despite claims to the contrary, educational outcomes do not compete with the best in the world.

“It is true that some of our top students achieve high standards, but there is a huge tail of underachievement, especially in the inner city areas, where results are some of the worst in the whole of Europe.

“Furthermore many of our schools fail to focus on the skills our young people will need for the next 20 to 30 years and persist in looking back and educating for a world which no longer exists.

“Teaching flexibility and adaptability, global awareness, entrepreneurship, co-operation and networking, confidence in meeting ever-changing circumstances, technological competence and high quality communication skills are the sort of attributes our children will need in the future.

“Spoon-feeding them with an outmoded, predictable diet, merely to pass examinations, will just not do.”