Rural communities must make the case for local schools

Friday, 31 May, 2013

     Rural communities must make the case for local schools

The Ulster Farmers’ Union met with Education Minister John O’Dowd to discuss the draft area plans for primary schools (published March 2013) and the potential detrimental impact these plans could have on rural primary schools and the overall rural community.

UFU Deputy President Barclay Bell said; “The Education Minister was very clear that we are in the middle of a consultation process and that no final decision on any school has been made yet. It was reassuring to hear him say that he did not view this as a numbers game and that pupil enrolment figures will not be the sole criteria used when it comes to deciding whether or not to close a school. We have suggested that a Small Schools Policy should be created, which would help to define and safeguard small schools in rural areas and prevent a situation like this arising again in future. The Minister has committed to fully considering all cases put forward, and local communities must now take this opportunity to make a strong case for their individual school. Not only demonstrating that a school meets the required criteria but also the school’s vital role in the local community.”

The UFU has consistently voiced its concern over the threat to rural schools, highlighting the detrimental impact it could have on children and the local community.

Barclay Bell continued; “The Education Minister must take into account the impact a school closure would have on a child’s health, safety and overall wellbeing. Children in many rural areas already face long travel journeys and closing their nearest school will mean they have to travel even further. Longer travelling times will result in children missing out on after school activities, and social time with their family and friends. Also during the winter months, it means children getting on and off buses and walking along roads in darkness, which is extremely dangerous.

“Often the local school is not only a place of education but the heart of the rural community. It offers employment in the local area and school buildings are used in the evenings to host youth groups and community meetings. We have argued that it would be better for Government to find more ways to use school facilities to provide services to local communities rather than just closing a school. Also, there is already work underway to explore shared education and I would like to see this option seriously considered when it comes to rural schools.”

Finding creative and innovative ways to utilise school facilities is in keeping with the Northern Ireland Executive’s Rural White Paper Action Plan.

Barclay Bell concluded; “The Education Department has a responsibility under Rural White Paper, which is a cross departmental plan, to help to ensure the future sustainability of rural areas. They have an opportunity here to deliver on a number of key actions and rather than closing rural schools they should be looking at ways that these schools can further enhance the quality of life of rural residents. The Education Department must remain committed to delivering on its commitments in the Rural White Paper, we reminded the Education Minister of this and we have also written to the Agriculture Minister outlining our concerns that the Education Department may have lost sight of their role in this important action plan.

“The Education Minister was saying all the right things but we will just have to wait and see if he is true to his word. In the meantime, rural communities should be rallying around their local schools and putting forward strong cases as to why their school should not be closed.”

UFU members can contact their local group office for a template letter which they can sign and send to the Education Minister in support of their local rural school.