Co Antrim principal addresses ‘sustainability’ issue

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A principal of a school listed as facing “sustainability issues” by the Education Authority in a new report has said small, rural schools are “priceless”.

Mrs Florence Mairs, principal of Straid Primary School near Ballyclare, was speaking after the Education Authority published its 2018-19 action plan.

The plan sets out proposed changes, some of which include increases or decreases in enrolment and the opening of new nursery units, for the period up to 2020.

This year’s report lists around two dozen schools facing what it calls “sustainability issues”, meaning they may be forced to close or merge with other schools in the future.

Last year’s action plan identified 40 such schools.

Most, but not all, of the school’s identified as facing sustainability issues can be found in rural areas, rather than in urban centres such as Belfast and Londonderry.

The Department of Education’s sustainable schools policy states that primary schools should have 140 pupils in urban areas and 105 pupils in rural areas.

Straid Primary School, with an enrolment of 43 pupils for the 2017/18 year, falls well under. It is just one of the many schools identified in the report as facing an issue with sustainability.

School principal Mrs Florence Mairs said that, despite her school being listed in the report, she was confident of the long-term future of the rural primary.

“We are very confident that we are sustainable, we have no worries about that,” she told the News Letter.

“We have had conversations with the Education Authority and we are confident in our long term future.”

She also highlighted the “priceless” contribution small, rural schools can make.

“The role of these types of schools is so important, particularly in small villages where it can often be only the church and the school at the centre of the village.

“Historically rural schools have been proven to produce the goods by providing a good, academic education, an environment where the children are safe and can thrive and blossom.

“Rural schools generally punch well above their weight academically.”

Mrs Mairs added: “I know everything has become centralised and automated, but the human aspect of a rural school is priceless. You couldn’t put a value on that.”

EA Director of Education John Collings said: “In many areas of Northern Ireland there are too many school places for the size of the population, while in other areas, there are not enough places.

“It may also be the case that there are not enough school places of the right type – perhaps demand for integrated or Irish medium education isn’t being met in a particular area.”

He continued: “Area planning seeks solutions to these issues to ensure all pupils have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Some areas may have relatively simple solutions such as increasing the enrolment number of a school, while other areas may require amalgamations, change of school management type, or sharing of resources.

“All local solutions will of course be subject to full consultation.”