Weir gears up for battle over rural schools

21 Oct 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 24 Oct 2016

When Education Minister Peter Weir launched the latest consultation on the future of schools he was setting himself for a severe examination which will test him to the limit. 

Selection and segregation are divisive enough issues in education, but there is another practically guaranteed to create an even greater furore: the closure of rural primary schools.

And there are unhappy, even disastrous precedents out there that he might seek to learn from before he proceeds.

We know from successive attempts to reform, rationalise and improve the health service that even where politicians from all parties agree to the principles and endorse the strategy, everything tends to fall apart when specific actions are proposed.

Too many places 

In health this has proved so toxic that a combination of nimby politicians from all parties and knee-jerk media coverage led to an abdication of political responsibility for reform – and the importation of a Basque politician to tell them what they already know they need to do.

Good luck to Mr Weir, then, when he attempts to rationalise the school estate.

The challenge is clear enough. Despite a population growth there are significantly more school places than there are pupils to occupy them.

Mr Weir told the Assembly that current estimates suggest that the gap is around the gap is around 65,000, but drops to 51,000 when special requirements are taken into account. Follow the link to read our account of the ensuing debate. 

Small schools cost more

In percentage terms that means that we have 18% overcapacity in primary schools and 8% in post primary. Given that the Audit Office is calling for the shortfall to be no greater than 10%, the focus will inevitably be on primary schools.

To examine the facts. Of the 300 primary schools in Northern Ireland that have the highest per capita funding, 299 have fewer than 100 pupils, and the vast majority of these are in rural areas. The Review of the Common Funding Scheme concluded that the disproportionate funding given to rural schools takes money from other schools, undermining overall educational objectives.

The extra cost is significant: the variation in per pupil funding at primary level in Northern Ireland ranges from £2,442 to £14,632 per pupil.

According to the Northern Ireland Assembly Research Service more than half (55%) of all primary schools in Northern Ireland are in rural areas.  It is those with less than 105 pupils that make the most significant financial losses for the system as a whole.

In addition, and in parallel to the recruitment problem in rural hospitals, applications for leadership roles in rural primary schools is declining. Partly this is because 78% of teachers say they would not want to combine teaching with being a school principal, which is necessary in small schools, and also because the opportunities for professional development and peer support are more restricted.

Dissent in the ranks 

There are also difficulties in securing substitute cover when teachers are ill or on maternity leave.

On top of that, and this was a point stressed several times by Mr Weir in his speech, there are specific challenges around teaching classes with mixed age groups, a characteristic of many smaller rural schools.

He said: “There is still a significant number of schools that are struggling, for a wide range of reasons, to deliver the best for their pupils. That is particularly evident in the primary sector, and, despite the efforts of teachers, it becomes harder to deliver high-quality education if pupils are taught in composite classes. There are still too many small primary schools with more than two year groups in a single class. 

Latest government figures show that 19% of classes in Northern Ireland are categorised as composite, according to Mr Weir: “When you drill down into that figure, you find that 177 classes in Northern Ireland are composites of more than two year groups, which means that a teacher is trying to teach to three year groups simultaneously or, in practical terms, teaching portions of them. “

Everything will be on the table when the real work of restructuring schools gets underway. But it is already clear that the focus will be on small rural primary schools.

Mr Weir’s constituency is primarily urban so he’d best be prepared for the likely response to proposed closures.

He might, for example, be interested in talking to his party colleague Mervyn Storey. This is what he had to say when Mr Weir’s predecessor John O’Dowd published a report on the schools estate: “Moves towards the creation of large 'super-schools' do not guarantee the educational outcome that is essential for our children. I believe the minister should call a halt to this current process and engage in a real debate about the real educational and financial issues facing the future of our education system and schools estate."

When Weir addressed the Assembly he was even challenged by SF’s Michelle Gildernew on composite classrooms. She said: “My children are in composite classes. They are in an excellent school. I prefer them to get a quality education in a composite class than maybe a lesser education in a class where they are taught by a teacher for the year group.”

This is hardly surprising. Fermanagh is the quintessential rural constituency and you can expect school closures and mergers to be fought tooth and nail. It also happens to be not only the most marginal constituency in Northern Ireland, and also the home base of his party leader Arlene Foster who will need to balance constituency interests against broader policies.

Is the answer in Alaska?

To many rural communities closing the local primary school is part of a process of devastation which will further weaken local economies and accelerate migration to urban areas.

Yet size and finance will not be the only factors considered. There will also be a process called “rural proofing” applied.  Yet when the Assembly’s research team looked into this matter in 2013 it discovered that only two officials in the Department and none in any of the Education and Library Boards or other education bodies such as the CCMS had been through the relevant training.

You would like to think the situation has improved by now, but if not, it is hard to imagine any rural MLAs being impressed by that state of affairs.

Elsewhere other governments take very different approaches. Over the border school mergers and closures are proceeding apace, with TDs in the Republic of Ireland even voting down measures to protect schools serving island communities.

The Welsh make no special provision for rural schools, with the government there saying it has saved money and that standards were not lower in larger merged schools.

In England, perhaps because of the great strength of the ruling Conservatives in rural seats have introduced legislative hurdles to prevent local authorities from the wholescale closure of rural schools.

If resistance to closure proves too fierce for Mr Weir to handle, expect some fact-finding missions to such places as Alaska (which uses video lessons), Canada (web classes, which have not proven successful); the Greek Islands (webcasts to fill “spare time” for the older children in composite classes), and Spain (which has adopted something called a “virtual” rural school to help isolated teachers to share ideas.)

International precedence suggests that technology does not provide a way out from difficult decisions, at least not yet.

Mr Weir is the DUP’s preeminent policy wonk and widely respected for his intellect.  It will be interesting to see how Bangor Grammar School and the Queen’s University Belfast has prepared him for the inevitable onslaught that will assail him from all sides and within his own party when the country people get their say. 


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