Belfast Telegraph

Report: Merging small rural schools in Northern Ireland could save millions

The estimated cost of duplication across the 32 pairs of schools is an extra £2.3m each year
The estimated cost of duplication across the 32 pairs of schools is an extra £2.3m each year
Andrew Madden

By Andrew Madden

Duplication of resources across small Catholic and controlled schools in rural Northern Ireland is costing millions in extra funding each year, according to a new report.

Academics from Ulster University identified 32 pairs of schools in rural areas that are serving two different communities, but are often "only yards" apart.

Many of these schools have less than the 105 pupils recommended by the Department of Education's sustainable schools policy.

The report, Isolated Together: Pairs of Primary Schools Duplicating Provision, found that millions could be saved by merging these schools, as there is duplication of teaching and ancillary staff.

Each of these small schools require a principal, teachers, teaching assistants and a range of other support staff, such as caretakers and catering staff.

"Of course, small schools require these staff to service the curriculum and to support the children in myriad ways, but these particular schools are close neighbours with other schools providing identical services," the report's authors, Dr Stephen Roulston and Dr Sally Cooke, said.

The teacher-to-pupil ratio in each of the 64 schools was also much lower than the Northern Ireland average.

In terms of finances, the average funding per pupil for the smallest pair of schools identified is £4,250. This compares with £3,163 per pupil for a single school of comparable size - a difference of more than 35%.

The estimated cost of duplication across the 32 pairs of schools is an extra £2.3m each year.

"The argument here is not that small schools should necessarily close, but that more effective local arrangements can be made, particularly in situations where schools are located very close to each other and are duplicating what they do," the report states.

"There is potential for small communities to retain a single, integrated school rather than risk closure of two unsustainable schools currently catering separately to each community.

"While reaching sustainable enrolment, often such schools would still be small enough to offer the advantages that small schools are thought to provide, while being of a scale which allows some of the benefits of larger schools."

The study does point out some advantages of smaller schools, such as better communication due to smaller staff teams and stronger links to the community.

But there are not just financial benefits to merging smaller schools, the report said, but also community benefits, as many of these schools are in "divided communities emerging from conflict".

"There may be a strong desire for choice in education, including faith-based provision. However, there is growing evidence that long-divided communities can collaborate and decide on future educational provision together," the paper states.

"Sometimes this may result in more young people being educated in the same building with a common uniform and staff group, and with a shared purpose. That outcome is likely to contribute to social cohesion."

Tina Merron, chief executive of the Integrated Education Fund, said the report is an "important examination" of the impact of the structure of Northern Ireland's education system. 

"The cost analysis of duplicating local delivery in small schools highlights the need to develop a creative approach to planning, which will ultimately benefit schools throughout the system," she said.

“However, the paper also points out that schools play a crucial role in rural communities, and working with local families and other residents to develop a way forward for education provision will be very important.

"We are proud to have supported the UU in developing a model for community conversation, which has been recognised as offering a mechanism for meaningful consultation during the process of planning public services in an area."

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