Small rural schools need to be protected, says UFU

The Ulster Farmers' Union has written to the Education Minister Peter Weir to express concern regarding the potential detrimental implications the Providing Pathways Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020 may have on rural schools.

The UFU acknowledge that the availability of high quality education across Northern Ireland is crucial, but policies and plans need to reflect the reality of life in rural areas.

Rural schools tend to be much more than just bricks and mortar; they are very often the heart of many communities. Small rural schools give children a great sense of identity, make them part of the local ethos and represent an option that is for the greater good of rural children.

Indeed, without access to local schools, rural children are likely to have greater travel and transport issues. This in turn impacts on the health and wellbeing of that young person.

The draft plan includes six criteria for assessment, the UFU remain concerned that enrolment trends are included, particularly as the plan also goes on to mention the magic number of 105 pupils. Rural schools tend to be smaller, many of which are below 105 pupils. Mobility of people tends to be more stagnant in rural areas which leave smaller rural schools more susceptible to fluctuations in enrolment trends. Whilst the UFU acknowledge that the Small Schools Policy exists, this does not fully address the issue that any decline in pupil numbers has an automatic effect on school budgets and, with ‘Having a sound financial position’ being another of the six criteria, the UFU feel this impacts on these schools. The draft plan highlights possible ways to increase sustainability of schools- matching provision to population trends, reducing school capacity and addressing school provision that is unsustainable. However, in the UFU view, all this will lead to is increased class sizes and school closures, both of which are to the detriment of a rural child’s quality of education.

The draft plan is a high level overarching plan that will steer local area plans which will be created through local councils. At its recent meeting, members of the UFU’s Rural Affairs Committee voiced apprehension that there were the appropriate resources and expertise to do this within councils.

The UFU seek to create policies that promote a vibrant rural countryside, that encourage UFU families and children to remain in the rural area in which they were raised. This is also highlighted in the NI Executive’s Rural White paper. The UFU is concerned that the draft strategic area plan has not taken account of the Rural White Paper or indeed Rural Proofing.

The UFU has always cited Scottish legislation as a good example for small rural schools. In Scotland there is the presumption against the closure of rural schools - not to prevent any or all such closures in future, but to seek to ensure that a closure decision is only taken as a last resort and not until all the alternatives have been explored and the potential impact on the community fully considered. The UFU feel that this is a pragmatic approach and could help safeguard small fragile economies. The problem in Northern Ireland is that each decision is taken in the absence of any consideration of their overall effect and this is nowhere more true than in the case of a school.

The needs of all children must be given priority, and NI must continue to educate young people to the highest possible standard providing equality and easy access for all. The UFU has sought assurance from the minister that quality, small rural schools will be protected and all alternatives to school closures must be explored first.