We must protect education in our rural communities
School closures need to be carried out in a way that is fair to all sectors, says Mervyn Storey
The heart and soul of the rural community lies in its schools. When schools come under threat, the very community itself is threatened.
The threat of school closure casts a shadow over the whole community. The local school is the place where generations of the same family have been educated.
Rural schools are places that identify a community; they are places were the community is nurtured.
When rural schools are threatened with closure, the community feels the pain. Parents, teachers and pupils are placed in a vulnerable position as they face uncertainty.
The Minister for Education, John O'Dowd, has announced a comprehensive review of the viability of post-primary schools here.
However, the criteria being laid down by the minister to determine school viability is far from clear.
Moreover, the minister has expressed openness to proposals which will see the amalgamation of schools across sectors. It is welcome to see that the shared education proposals, which our party leader, Peter Robinson, outlined over a year ago, are being taken onboard by the minister.
The reason we need a single education system is not just a matter of economics, or savings, or even declining numbers - it is a matter of fairness and equity.
It is interesting that the minister has started his review of schools with the post-primary sector. If you look at the data, it is evident why.
There are dozens of schools west of the Bann, particularly in the maintained sector, which fall below the criteria set out by the Bain report on sustainable schools.
This only highlights my main concern, which is that school closures must be undertaken in a way which is fair across all sectors.
In recent times, one educational sector, in particular, has been the hardest-hit. One educational sector has borne the brunt of the pain of closure. The controlled sector has closed 31 schools and undertaken six amalgamations in the last five years. This is compared to merely nine schools closing in the maintained sector.
Clearly, the system has functioned in a way which is inequitable. The school viability audits cannot be used as a further means to disadvantage the controlled sector.
The minister must ensure that the sustainable schools policy is implemented in a way which is fair.
But we have an opportunity to make a radical change to the education system of Northern Ireland.
The DUP, is working towards the day when there is one education system. This does not mean that we simply make schools that survive the cull integrated.
We now have an opportunity to use the viability audits currently being undertaken to form the bedrock of a vision for a single education sector.
It is important, particularly in rural areas, that the sectoral bias and the strategic interests of some are set aside. No longer can certain rural schools enjoy protected status to the detriment of others.
The current economic outlook requires savings, but savings are not made through inequality.
This is a fight for more than schools. It is a fight for communities.
Schools falling below the numerical criteria are experiencing further decline. Parents, believing a school is under threat, are also taking their children out of declining schools.
Now is the time for the minister to bring forward proposals which will 'rural-proof' schools.
Protecting rural schools in an equitable way will give rise to confidence. Parents, teachers, pupils and the community can live in confidence their school will stay open and the heartbeat of their community will continue to function.