Cast an inquisitive eye across the vast expanse of the education system that Northern Ireland has to put up with and it’s not hard to see that something has to change.
It’s simply unaffordable in it’s current state.
Report after report, review after review, year after year, all have bemoaned the fact that the money being poured into education doesn’t glean the results it needs.
By 2025 it’s estimated education will face a deficit of £543m — and it won’t get any better any time soon with the Department facing a further 2% cut in funding from the Department of Finance next year.
But that isn’t the fault of schools. It’s a failure of management and appeasement of a system that bedded roots over 100 years ago and now stands as an oak tree with branches spreading a suffocating canopy over the young people of Northern Ireland. Those left in the shadow wither and die.
Now the Education Authority has launched a consultation on the future of schools. And in the firing line for review are those with the fewest pupils, the schools that cost more per pupil.
While it is a situation that needs talked about, the needs of communities should not be neglected at the expense of saving money.
Just because a school has 60 pupils doesn’t mean it isn’t valued by the community it serves. In many cases it’s quite the opposite. The value is much greater.
While no-one is saying that all schools must be kept open at any cost, that cost must not be the only consideration.
Rather than simply start a process of closing schools which are proving too costly to maintain — with many in older buildings that haven't been upgraded for years, save the addition of mobile classrooms — the school estate is calling out for a united approach to addressing the situation.
Communities need schools, but some communities do not need three or four different, smaller schools of various religious persuasions. It’s the number of schools that have been allowed to plough on regardless over the years from different sectors that leaves so many with too few pupils to be viable in the long term.
Bankrolling two schools of 100 pupils each, or one school of 200 pupils? It should be a simple choice, and the decision should be made based on the needs of the children, not the needs of any one particular sector that has grown out of an appeasement a century ago to smooth over the establishment of a country.
The real mistake is that nothing has been done until now.
There will be a certain amount horror at the image of an axe hovering over some of the smaller schools in Northern Ireland purely based on pupil number and cost.
But it is long past the time to be logical.
Rather than declaring schools unsustainable from a financial point of view, is there not a case to be made for looking at ways of making those that have a value that can’t be measured in monetary terms sustainable for the sake of the communities? Start by cutting down on the bureaucracy that chews up so much of the budget with no nourishment for our children.
With an Independent Review of Education currently ongoing, and not due to report for another year, the chance is now to shape an education system that works for everyone. But some will have to swallow a little pride, give away a little control, allow schools to serve communities as a whole rather than certain sections of it.
100 years of doing their own thing has not aged well, particularly not in the more inclusive, multi-cultural society that people strive for in the 21st century.
In recent decades there has been resistance to change at every turn. Impenetrable knots in the tangled ball of wool that has evolved to meet the needs of the country, not the needs of the children.
Scratching around the surface has been attempted before. The itch has festered into a costly wound. Surgery comes at a cost and that’s a pill that will need to be swallowed.
Almost immune to the antibiotic of tinkering around the edges, it’s perhaps apt that as Northern Ireland enters it’s second century, a more serious debate on education which could shape the next 100 years begins.