Why small rural schools facing closure should consider local amalgamation…

After the passing of an integrated education bill at Stormont, Peter Osborne, a former chair of the Community Relations Council and Parades Commission, and Board member of the Integrated Education Fund, reflects on the burden of history.

Integrated education is not the final and only answer to the illness that is sectarianism in a region that has lived with segregation for decades and centuries.  Since the mid-19th century those vested interests that drove a segregated education system have contributed to where this part of Ireland is today.  More integrated education can only be a start, a very necessary part, of the change that is needed.

Recently, the Ulster University undertook research into the location of primary schools in Northern Ireland.  Called isolated pairs, the research found 64 primary schools (32 pairs) from a Controlled (mainly Protestant attendees) and Maintained (mainly Catholic attendees) that were located no more than one mile from each other, sometimes just yards apart.

Of these 32 pairs of schools in 32 separate villages, 26 of the villages have one or the other, and sometimes both schools, below the threshold for sustainability; which is set in rural areas at 105 pupils.  So, unless something dramatic changes in their enrolment one or the other or both schools are likely to close in the years to come.

Most people might think the sensible way forward would be for the schools to explore amalgamation to ensure the survival of at least one primary school in the village, as a critical resource for the health of any rural community.

But that won’t happen.  Instead, the main question upon the closure of one school will be how to transport the children and young people to the nearest other school from the same sector.

No planning based on economies of scale that may deal with the 60,000 plus empty desks currently.  No planning based on the impact on the environment of adding yet more school bus journeys – currently about 130 million miles of bus journeys take children to schools that are not the closest to them.

The greatest impact, though, will be on the village in years to come.  Regardless of the community background of the children attending the school that will close, their parents and future parents of children not yet born, are increasingly likely to move out of that village or not to buy a house in that village to start with.

The village, with no clearly attributed education provision for children from one community background will become an increasingly single identity village, made up of the other.

The growth of single identity communities in rural areas in Northern Ireland is the antitheses of a peace process where relationship is key.

Education is not the only contributor to segregation but it is critical.  Recalibrating centuries of policy that tolerates or inadvertently facilitates more and more segregation will take time.

Educationalist Sydney Harris said education is about turning mirrors into windows, helping young people see what is possible.

In Northern Ireland we need to stop looking in the mirror at a segregated past where our ancestral voices dictate the present as well as the future.  If we want our children to see what is possible, we need to free them from the burden of our history.

Peter Osborne can be followed on Twitter: @OsborneTweets.

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