Schools: the price of segregation

6 Dec 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Dec 2019

Pic: Wikicommons, PRONI

The troubled history of the Northern Irish state is full of “if only” moments.

One of the most momentous of these took place at its formation. The first Education Minister Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry had a vision of children of all denominations being educated together.

His Education Act of 1923 was designed to create an efficient system of non-sectarian schools under public control to replace the old and divisive system of inadequate and clerically controlled schools that had grown up to this point. Under it local education authorities were forbidden to require teachers to belong to any particular church or denomination or to provide religious instruction. Instead they were required to provide opportunities for religious education outside compulsory school hours, so long as parents did not object.

The Act was passed – as one Unionist MP at the time put it: “sectarianism and denominationalism are two things we are anxious to avoid in the North of Ireland.” It is often forgotten that at the inception of the state the new government wanted, in Craig’s words to “probe to the depths” and create a new type of society. This was one of its most important projects.

However both Protestant and Catholic church leaders were incensed at what they called Londonderry’s “Godless” schools, concessions were made – and in 1930 a new Education Act reinstated the old dual system, completely destroying the attempt to build an integrated education system.

Almost 100 years after Londonderry’s failed initiative Northern Ireland’s education system is in the grip of a deep financial crisis. If it is to balance the books it needs to consolidate the school estate – that means closures and mergers.

The latest briefing paper in Ulster University’s UNESCO Centre’s Transforming Education series, which is supported by the Integrated Education Fund could not be better timed.

Isolated Together: Pairs of Primary Schools Duplicating Provision looks at the cost of providing small rural schools of different sectors and sets out the cost of continuing duplication of provision.

It  uses government data and GIS mapping to identify areas where two small primary schools, in some cases below the official sustainable enrolment level, are located close together but several miles from other, similar provision.

The issue of small, isolated schools was one that Londonderry approached with gusto. Today it is territory few politicians dare to tread.

The report states: “In most of Northern Ireland, rural populations appear to be geographically mixed. However, this can be deceptive. While there are no Peace Lines beyond the larger settlements, even small villages may be divided into areas perceived as ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’. Some research reports one ATM machine in a small village being used by Catholics and another by Protestants. Having small settlements or rural areas with two primary schools, each serving their own community, is not uncommon in Northern Ireland.”

The Bain Report states that the minimum numbers of pupils required for sustainable operation of primary schools is 105 in rural and 140 in urban areas. In 2017-18, 274 of the 817 primary schools in Northern Ireland (34%) were below those sustainability thresholds. Therefore consolidation is urgently required.

However the divided nature of our system makes this extremely challenging.

The problems involved with small school are well documented. They can lack staff with specialist skills, have principals who have to combine running the school with teaching duties and need to have children of different ages taught in the same composite classes.

The report cites other research suggesting that they can also have strong benefits: closer links to the community, peer learning in composite classes and acting as the heart of the community in some rural areas.  In addition mergers can lead to much longer journey times for pupils.

This issue, of the benefits or otherwise of small schools is important, but it is not the focus of the report. It is not arguing for wholesale closure of small schools. Rather it is pointing out the wastage that results when schools, often a few yards apart duplicate services when there is the potential for them to work together.

In those cases where neighbouring schools are deemed unsustainable because they each have less than 105 pupils the report points to the potential to create a single, integrated sustainable school, still enjoying the benefits of being small, whilst eliminating unnecessarily long journeys and eliminating the duplication their separate identities create.

It identifies 32 pairs of primary schools, one Controlled, the other Maintained  which are less than a mile apart and each of which is more than three miles from another school of the same type. All of them are in rural areas, most in the south and west of Northern Ireland.

Ten of them have fewer than 50 pupils meaning that in some cases the teacher/pupil ratio is one to eight. The report states: “A classroom in a school just a few hundred yards away may well have a similar ratio.”

This obviously leads to higher costs. The report states: “The average funding per pupil in the smallest isolated pair, when combined, is £4,250 per pupil, compared to just £3,163 per pupil in single schools of a comparable size, a difference of over 35%.  A pair of schools close to the middle enrolment size in the 32 isolated pairs have a combined enrolment of 237. They too get more funding per pupil than individual schools of a comparable size, although the difference is now only 10%.  In the pair of isolated schools with the largest enrolment (799 pupils), there is very little difference in the funding per pupil.

However we should not conclude from this that the larger isolated pairs of schools are cost effective. A proportion of the overall funding of them has to be spent sustaining that duplication: two school principals, two sets of catering facilities, classroom assistants and ancillary staff. Therefore the cash available for supporting teaching and learning within those schools will be reduced. 

The report quotes from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee which earlier this year found that there was a large amount of wasted capacity in the education system. “Giving evidence to the committee, Sir Robert Salisbury contrasted duplicated provision in his local town in Northern Ireland with a similarly sized town in England, and concluded “…if you replicate that across the whole of Northern Ireland, you have your funding crisis in one view”. 

Overall, the 32 pairs of schools received an additional £2.3M each year, compared to the average cost to support the same pupils in combined schools in each location.

The historian Patrick Buckland was scathing about the effects of the 1930 Education Act. He wrote: “Whatever the effects on society at large, the consequence of continued sectarianism for education was lower standards, particularly in the provision of buildings and equipment … school services were inadequate, books and stationery were bought for only one child in ten. Indeed Northern Ireland was still a generation or more behind most of England and Wales.”

By then Londonderry had left Northern Irish politics for Westminster. By the end of the decade he had gained notoriety for his promotion of appeasement with the Nazis. He met Hitler several times in Berlin and entertained the German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop who turned up at Mount Stewart with an SS guard. For that he is remembered in history as the Londonderry Herr.

If he had stayed at home and his education reforms had been protected, his legacy might have been rather more positive. If only.

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