So much more to small rural schools than pupil numbers…

By Dr Montserrat Fargas-Malet and Professor Carl Bagley QUB

Small rural primary schools have been repeatedly in the news as they are being earmarked for closure, with the Education Authority (EA) draft area plan for the next five years stating that there are too many small schools that are not economically sustainable. However, what do we really know about these schools? The last policy report on small rural schools in Northern Ireland was published 20 years ago.

We are hosting a free event as part of the ESRC festival of Social Sciences on Saturday the 5th November where we will present the findings of our recent research and discuss them with other stakeholders. Since the summer of 2020, we have been conducting a study on small rural primary schools and their communities in Northern Ireland. This involved an online survey of principals of these schools and qualitative case studies of five small rural primary schools across Northern Ireland. In total, 91 principals completed the survey; and during the case studies, we talked to principals, teaching and non-teaching staff, parents, pupils and Governors.

Both the Bain Report in 2006 and the following Department of Education policy for sustainable schools in 2009 established that primary schools in rural areas should have at least 105 pupils enrolled. We found that over 40 per cent of all rural primary schools had a lower number of pupils enrolled. However, as the title of this piece states, our findings suggest that there is a lot more about small rural primary schools than pupil numbers. Key findings of the study include:

  • Despite their diversity and in line with some of the findings from international research, small rural schools in Northern Ireland face similar challenges, most common being financial pressures and staff’s intense workloads (including teaching principals’ dual/multiple role). For many of these schools, particularly those with smaller pupil numbers, falling pupil numbers and the threat of closure is especially significant and (judging by the survey findings) negatively affects principals’ job satisfaction. Partly because of the policy context of area planning, the smaller schools appear particularly susceptible to rumour and speculation notably around closure, with parents in the community less likely to enroll their children when imagining that they will not be able to continue in the same school.


  • Small rural schools are also perceived to have similar strengths, most common being their strong relationship with the community, the low pupil-to-teacher ratio (ideal to meet children’s individual needs), and the family-like environment where everybody knows and supports each other.


  • Most small rural schools are located within areas perceived as either mostly Catholic or mostly Protestant. This influences the type of organisations/institutions found within that community, including the type of school.


  • The role of the churches in these schools and their communities is especially significant, particularly in Catholic Maintained and Controlled schools. Many have a strong relationship with the church, as not only the church has a representative in the Board of Governors, but they also share resources (with some schools using the church hall, etc.), church leaders visit the schools regularly, have religious events and celebrations, etc.


  • Small rural schools are a big part of their rural communities. Some are perceived to be ‘at the heart of the community’. This can mean different things depending on the school, but they often are a ‘meeting point’ where people come together. Schools organise community events, share resources with different groups, and contribute to the economy of the area, among many other things.


  • The relationship between the school and the community was found to be a powerful, mutual, dynamic relationship, the intricacies of which depended on the historic, social and geographic context of the school itself. Bringing children to, working in, and attending the school were perceived as reinforcing a sense of belonging and pride to be part of that community.


  • Interviewees in our case study schools were dismayed at the prospect of losing the school, arguing that it would be the break-up/end of the community if that happened.


  • Based on our survey findings, most small rural schools have participated in Shared Education programmes. Shared Education partnerships were exceptionally strong in some of our case studies, and they were considered to have a key role in creating and sustaining positive cross-community relationships in the local area.

“Our school is the heart of the rural community. Our families often have no other outlet or community-based organisation to support them. People come to live in the village because of our school. We offer support for parents and work closely with community groups to offer social events. Many of our parents do not drive and have no public transport, meaning they live isolated lives apart from their connection to the school. Having schools in rural areas provide adults and children alike a chance to mix with people from their areas and to learn and develop in a situation where their needs are met and understood.” (Principal in the survey open text box)

There are free tickets to grab to attend our event here. We will have hard copies of our report to give out on the day. Do not miss out if you are interested in small rural primary schools. The event will be of particular interest to educational professionals, rural community groups and policy-makers.

*Killyloch is a pseudonym for one of the schools that took part in the case studies.

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