Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Closures won't pull down barriers between pupils

Rather than shutting schools across sectors Education Minister John O'Dowd should back sharing across communities, says Mervyn Storey

We have all heard the figures. Northern Ireland has more than 85,000 empty school desks, the budget for schools has been cut, demographic and population shifts have made many schools, particularly in rural areas, unsustainable.

It seems that an unassailable case has been made to close schools. But has the case for school closures really been made?

On the face of it, there seems to be no argument. If you close schools, you save money. However, when you start to unravel the economics, things are not quite as they seem.

Schools are funded by pupil numbers. This means each pupil is a monetary value to a school. This value remains the same, regardless of which school a child attends.

It is a widely-held belief that a post-primary school is financially unsustainable if it falls below a critical mass of 500 pupils.

We have some 76 schools (35% of the secondary sector) which fail to meet the minimum pupil threshold.

So let's say we were to close the 76 schools that fail to meet the Department of Education's assessment of critical mass. Surely such closure will make huge savings for the Northern Ireland budget?

In a study conducted by the University of Ulster (Borooah and Knox), if the 76 schools are closed, some 26,170 pupils will be required to move to another school.

The cost associated with educating these children does not change.

The only savings found are in the schools management budget. This means that closing the 76 schools and displacing thousands of children would save about £10m.

Now that seems like a substantial sum of money. However, £10m merely represents 0.9% of the entire school budget each year.

So 26,000 children could be displaced this September - some 25% of whom are pupils from deprived backgrounds - to save less than 1% of the entire school budget.

Do we really want to cause all this upheaval for less than 1% of the budget?

While it is acknowledged that some schools will need to close, it also needs to be acknowledged that this is not an economic argument.

We stand on the cusp of an opportunity to move this society forward. Our education system compounds division - both sectarian and socio-economic division. Moves towards the creation of larger 'super-schools' will tend to be intra-sectoral and Balkanise Northern Ireland further.

The Education Minister has an opportunity to take the first steps in ending this separation. But barriers will not be broken down by closing a school in one sector and moving pupils to another school, outside their community, in the same sector.

The economic argument simply doesn't stand up, but the case for sharing does. Rather than close schools across sectors, it is time for the minister to promote sharing across communities.

Many schools, on their own initiative, are experiencing first-hand the benefits of moving to a more shared basis of education.

It is time for the department to encourage all the sectors - Controlled, Integrated and Maintained - to share across sectoral division.

Sharing allows children to be educated together within their community, building up the fabric of towns and villages.

If the minister has the bravery to encourage sharing, the benefits of a strong, more integrated Northern Ireland will be felt in the future.

The future of education is not a question of economics; it's a test of whether or not we are ready to keep Northern Ireland moving forward.

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