It’s a position many rural schools will find themselves facing in the years to come, but at Ballougry Primary, Co Londonderry, they are refusing to bear silent witness to a closure proposal after almost 160 years.
With 44 pupils, and having been named on an Education Authority (EA) list of those under threat in 2019, the day has come where the fight to save the school gets real.
The one thing it needs — but feels it has not been granted should the news be bad when a consultation process closes at the end of June — is time.
Since 2019 a new principal has been installed, the number of pupils is rising and the future started to look as bright as the spring flowers in the carefully-tended garden in the grounds.
And for one famous former pupil, the thought of the school no longer serving the community she grew up in is heartbreaking.
Actress Amanda Burton will be back on TV as Silent Witness returns to the BBC.
She said she wouldn’t be where she is today without the idyllic upbringing she enjoyed as daughter of the principal at Ballougry — the last remaining rural mixed school on the west bank of the Foyle.
Her late father Arthur was headmaster for 34 years.
“We all lived in the schoolhouse. It was so much a part of my life from when I was able to understand things,” she explained.
“It has such a special, huge place in my heart, and while that in itself is not a reason to keep the school open, I do feel it was such a magical place for me to grow up in.”
Not only was her father principal, her mum was the school cook, and her sisters went on to teach there.
“It’s the surroundings, and the education that come with a smaller rural school,” she added.
“It’s the personal and unintense education that you can have with smaller class groups. I’m a great advocate for that.
“I definitely had the space to grow as a child there.
“It fuelled my ambitions to be an actress and gave me the most deep-seated love of the countryside. It all had a very lasting impact on me.
“We had such a full childhood. My mother was the type who kicked us outdoors come rain or hail.
“We made dens under trees, disappeared for hours playing, storytelling, making camps. It just completely fuelled my imagination and ultimately had a leaning towards me going on and wanting to be an actress.”
Ballougry Primary is well under the 105-pupil minimum set by the EA.
Rural schools with less than that number are under scrutiny as unsustainable.
“I would be first in the queue there if I lived in Derry and had young kids to send them there,” said Amanda.
“The school is a very progressive one. It’s integrated in all but name, takes kids from both sides of the border.
“It has such a lot to give and I totally believe it needs time to grow post-pandemic.
“This school can have a life again. It has a very progressive headmaster and parent/teacher association. It really has such a value in the local community.
“I would urge anyone thinking about a school for their children to go and have a look.
“There are such good feelings about it.
“It’s vitally important to continue a school in that community, and once they go, that’s it. You’re bussing children into the city.
“There’s nothing better for a growing child who lives in a rural community than to be educated there as well.
“There is still time to go to schools in the city when they’re older.
“It’s a beautiful area where you notice the seasons changing. You learn about the countryside, the flowers growing around you. It’s idyllic.”
Idyllic it may be, but the setting did little to soften the blow when EA notification of consultation on the closure proposal arrived on the doorstep earlier this month.
Principal Damian O’Kane was appointed in November 2019, a period when the school was undergoing managerial changes.
“It wasn’t an easy time for the school,” he admitted.
“A number of parents had decided to move their children from the school, then we had a year of zero entry at P1, so the alarm bells were there before I arrived.
“There was a lot of unease in the community and across the school. We needed to build up trust and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve come a long way in a short space of time.
“We are very rural and we draw pupils from some extreme areas. The map will show that.
“In September 2020 we brought six pupils in to P1 and another four across the school. In 2021 we brought nine in. We’ve another nine signed up for P1 this year. There’s a clear change. That shows that we’re working the right way.
“We need that message out there, that we’re serving a very unique community.
“A lot of parents pass the school on their way to work in Derry and it’s so much easier for them to bring their children here rather than navigate the centre.”
There is a feeling the odds began to stack up against the school years ago.
“On one hand we’re told we need 105 pupils as a rural school. Legally, my capacity here is 84. You’re almost beaten before you begin,” Mr O’Kane pointed out.
“In many jurisdictions across Europe, 105 is the top number of pupils a rural school should have, not the minimum. It’s an impossible bar. It makes it so difficult for any rural school to feel safe for the future.
“Policy requirements were written in 2009. Surely that needs looked at again.”
And should the school disappear, the community might not be long behind it.
“This is more than a school, it’s a community space. Taking it away will leave a derelict building after nearly 160 years of history,” he added.
“From a parents’ and kids’ point of view, any move from here will be a culture shock many are not ready for.
“My P5 has 11 children in it. There is no guarantee they will be placed in the same school, let alone the same classroom.
“Not only will they be moved from familiar surroundings and friends, they may end up in another school on their own.
“These are all the factors that must be considered. It’s what’s best for the child that should be the top priority.
“What we need is the time to continue to show that the school is progressing.
“If, after that time, things are still proving difficult, I’ll be the first to hold my hands up and say we tried.
“But we deserve to be able to try. I believe, and the parents here believe, we’ve shown enough in he past three years to earn that opportunity.
“We can talk all day about policies and numbers, but I have 44 children here who need taken care of whatever happens.”
The EA said the final decision will rest with the Education Minister, but encouraged parents and interested parties to join in the consultation.
“We have had two meetings with the EA since 2019 looking at sustainability,” Mr O’Kane said.
“At the most recent in September last year we put forward a 10-year plan. The community is behind it and we need their views to be taken into consideration. Those plans need time to show they can work.”
The consultation period ends on June 29, but parents have been more than supportive of the school’s dedication.
“We have to keep the school running,” he added.
“To be honest, over the past few weeks I’ve hardly slept. You bring it all home with you, but we have to keep going, keep fighting and responding to the consultation.
“The EA need to see how much this school means. We will be here as normal unless we hear otherwise.”