Small rural schools as a key part of their communities: New report on study findings published

An ESRC Festival of Social Science event was held on 5th November in Riddel Hall where study findings were presented followed by a panel discussion with key stakeholders

In a ESRC Festival of Social Science event, we presented some of the findings of the study to an audience mostly comprised of educational professionals, as well as parents and governors of rural schools. We also published a report of the findings so far, which you can download from here.

The event, entitled ‘The future of small rural schools in Northern Ireland’, involved a panel discussion after our presentation. The seven panellists included representatives from the Education Authority, the Department of Education, the Rural Community Network, the Integrated Education Fund and the Independent Review of Education, a University of Ulster academic, and a retired ETI inspector and principal. After the panellists introduced themselves, the audience were able to ask questions.

The study data collection has not been fully finalised yet. However, after selecting five schools to take part in our case studies, we have already interviewed and talked to their principals, teaching and non-teaching staff, parents, pupils and Governors. Thus, some analysis of these data revealed a range of findings as listed in our Slugger O’Toole blog piece.

Despite their diversity and in line with some of the findings from international research, small rural schools in Northern Ireland face similar challenges, most common being financial pressures and staff’s intense workloads (including teaching principals’ dual/multiple role). For many of these schools, particularly those with smaller pupil numbers, falling pupil numbers and the threat of closure is especially significant and (judging by the survey findings) negatively affects principals’ job satisfaction. Partly because of the policy context of area planning, the smaller schools appear particularly susceptible to rumour and speculation notably around closure, with parents in the community less likely to enroll their children when imagining that they will not be able to continue in the same school.

Small rural schools are also perceived to have similar strengths, most common being their strong relationship with the community, the low pupil-to-teacher ratio (ideal to meet children’s individual needs), and the family-like environment where everybody knows and supports each other.

Small rural schools are a big part of their rural communities. Some are perceived to be ‘at the heart of the community’. This can mean different things depending on the school, but they often are a ‘meeting point’ where people come together. Schools organise community events, share resources with different groups, and contribute to the economy of the area, among many other things.

sLUGGER O’TOOLE, 2022/10/22

Our research has also featured in the BBC local news and the Irish News.

Shared Education in small rural schools: Findings from a survey of principals (Part 4)

This is the fourth blog post in which we present the results from our recent survey, and it is really appropriate to release it in Good Relations Week #GRW21, as it focuses on shared education. In April this year 2021, we invited 201 principals of small rural schools. These were all the schools that had 105 pupils or less enrolled in the school years 2019/20 or 2020/21 in a rural area (as defined by NISRA) in Northern Ireland. In total, 91 took part, although only 86 fully completed the questionnaire. 

The Department of Education has publicly aimed to promote and facilitate shared education, where pupils continue to attend their own schools but participate in joint classes and activities with pupils from other types of schools. The most recent figures about participation in Shared Education indicate that “the Shared Education Signature Project (SESP) and the Peace IV Programme supported 716 schools and early years’ settings, with over 85,000 children and young people engaged in shared education at June 2019” (p.6). If you want to find out more about shared education, the Centre for Shared Education in Queen’s University Belfast has been conducting extensive research on this area.

Our findings indicate that the majority of small rural schools in Northern Ireland have been engaging in shared education programmes in different ways. Please see infographic below focused exclusively on shared education.

Community Segregation: Findings from the survey of principals (Part 3)

This is the third blog post in which we present the results from our recent survey. It’s Good Relations Week #GRW21, and this post focuses on community segregation. In April this year 2021, we invited 201 principals of small rural schools. These were all the schools that had 105 pupils or less enrolled in the school years 2019/20 or 2020/21 in a rural area (as defined by NISRA) in Northern Ireland. In total, 91 took part, although only 86 fully completed the questionnaire. In the previous posts, our infographics focused on challenges and opportunities, and community engagement. The infographic below indicates the level of segregation in rural communities and differences between the two most common types of schools.

Northern Irish society has been historically divided between two main groups: a group with a Catholic community background and Irish identity and a group with a Protestant community background and a British identity. The education system very much reflects this division, with most pupils with a Catholic community background attending Catholic Maintained schools and most pupils with a Protestant community background attending Controlled schools. Only about 7% of pupils attend Integrated schools, attended by children and staff from Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as those of other faiths, or none. The characteristics of the 201 rural schools invited to take part in the survey reflected this situation, as most of the schools were either Catholic Maintained (n=104) or Controlled (n=89) and only 5 were Controlled Integrated. The rest were either Irish-medium schools (n=2) or other Maintained (n=1). The principals that took part worked in similar proportions of schools belonging to these sectors, as seen in the infographic below. These schools were situated within areas and communities which were mostly segregated too.

School Engagement: Findings from the survey of principals (Part 2)

In this blog, we continue presenting the results from our recent survey. As mentioned in previous blog post, we conducted a survey of principals of small rural schools (with 105 pupils or less enrolled in 2019/20 or 2020/21) in Northern Ireland. Out of 201 invited principals, 91 took part, although only 86 fully completed the questionnaire. In Part 1, our infographic focused on challenges and opportunities. In the infographic below, we focus on engagement with parents/families, the wider community, and with other schools. Let us know in the comments section what your thoughts are about the results and if you have any questions regarding the survey.

Challenges and Opportunities: Findings from the survey of principals (Part 1)

Between April and July 2021, we carried out an online survey of principals of small rural schools in Northern Ireland. Out of 201 principals, 91 took part, although 5 of them did not fully complete it. We have been busy analysing and compiling their responses. Now we are trying to show the results in digestible infographics. In this first one, we focus on challenges and opportunities for these schools.

Exploring small rural schools in Europe – 3 things we learned

As summer holidays start, five small rural primary schools will be closing their doors for good in Northern Ireland, and thousands more will be closing around Europe. There hasn’t been much public recognition on how this will impact on their communities. We reviewed research on small rural schools in Europe in the 21st century in our new article, which is free to download. You can find the link at the end of this blog post. Here we summarise 3 interesting facts that we found out.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

1. The number of small rural schools in Europe has shrunk drastically in the last four or five decades.

Small rural primary schools have closed or amalgamated in many European countries. For example, in northern Finland, three out of four small rural schools closed between 1990 and 2010. In Poland, between 1990 and 2012, the number of rural primary schools dropped by nearly 40%, resulting in the closure of nearly 6000 schools. Most of these schools appear to close because of financial reasons, as small schools are seen to be too expensive to run in contrast with larger schools. There is also a policy bias that considers rural schools as somehow deficient, and multi-age teaching in small schools as ‘inferior’ to age-homogenous teaching in larger schools. However, there is no evidence to demonstrate these prejudices. Indeed, we found that this image of rural schools is starting to be called into question, and recent studies show that rural schools are no worse than urban ones. When there are differences in the educational achievements of pupils in large urban and small rural schools, this is often due to socio-economic differences rather than differences in the quality of instruction.

2. Small rural primary schools are very diverse.

There is not an agreed definition, but small rural primary schools are usually defined by being in a rural area and the small number of pupils enrolled. This number varies between fewer than 50 to fewer than 140. Other characteristics that are mentioned are the small number of staff employed, having a teaching principal, their geographical isolation, and having mixed-grade classes. However, research has highlighted the enormous diversity of small rural schools in Europe. There are differences on educational policies and socio-economic situations in Europe, which make schools differ between countries. Within the same country, there is also a plurality of small rural schools. So, schools face different challenges depending on their geographical (and socio-economic) location, the number of pupils and teachers, their own local social histories, and whether they are under threat of closure.

3. Small rural primary schools not only face challenges, but they can also offer multiple opportunities to teachers, principals, pupils and the communities they serve.

Small rural schools have multiple strengths, according to a range of studies. First, they are often seen as being ‘at the heart of their communities’, being able to form a strong connection with their local community. Second, they can deliver a “place-based curriculum”, which highlights children’s relationship with nature and promotes local history and culture. Third, small schools have a strong potential to identify and address pupils’ individual needs. And finally, they have been used as a testing ground for innovation. For instance, in Austria, a study focused on two small rural schools that were both restructured as Montessori schools by their principals, who weren’t from the local area and were committed to this pedagogical approach.

In conclusion, it is important for policy-makers not to base their decisions in prejudices but on the evidence available about small schools. The decision of closing any of these schools down should consider not just its enrollment number but the particularities of that school, including its value for the local community.

If you want to find out more about small rural primary schools in Europe, please read our review of the literature here. We hope you enjoy it and let us know what you think in the comments.

Inequalities in Educational Attainment: Reporting findings from a new PhD study

This post has been written by Dr Gemma Cherry, who recently passed her PhD viva. She reports on her PhD study, which explores inequalities in educational attainment between rural and urban pupils.

In educational research, particularly in the UK context, the factor of urban-rural location is rarely focused on in comparison to other more intensively researched factors such as gender, socioeconomic status (SES) and ethnicity. Educational inequalities are well documented, but research rarely considers the urban-rural context in which pupils live and education takes place. In the UK and internationally, urban locations are taken as the norm in educational research and are presupposed when nothing else is stated. This default context overlooks the many children and young people that grow up in rural circumstances and, as a result, we lack an understanding of how these pupils may become educationally (dis)advantaged. Given the dearth of empirical evidence on the relationship between location and pupils’ educational attainment in Northern Ireland (NI), this thesis used a quantitative approach to address the absence of knowledge by drawing on novel administrative data.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

When I began my PhD in the winter of 2016, the only information that was available in the NI context on the link between education and urban-rural location were descriptive statistics, which were published annually by the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). These statistics indicated a rural educational advantage. However, it was impossible to gain a firm knowledge base on this issue from descriptive statistics alone, and it was clear that more detailed research was needed. Furthermore, DAERA only focus on post-primary attainment and do not test the statistical significance of their findings. By overcoming the shortcomings associated with these statistical publications, my thesis represents the first in-depth investigation of the relationship between rurality and educational attainment in NI.

The research utilised high-quality and comprehensive data from both primary and post-primary educational stages that had never been available for research or analysed before. The post-primary data was a linked dataset which matched the School Census, the School Leavers Survey and the NI Census. As such, complete cohort information was available. The primary dataset was provided by Granada Learning (GL) Assessment and represents the first data available in NI that includes information for primary level pupils. Having access to such novel and detailed data provided an opportunity to conduct a more comprehensive analysis and, thus, develop a better understanding of those factors impacting on pupils’ attainment in NI.

In order to examine how urban-rural location influences educational attainment, this research used multilevel modelling techniques and focused on pupils’ outcomes in Maths and English at primary level, and GCSE Maths, GCSE English and the overall number of GCSEs achieved by pupils at post-primary level. Multilevel modelling was the most appropriate method of analysis for the present study as it takes into consideration the hierarchical structure of the education system, in which pupils are clustered within schools.

Photo by John Tyson on Unsplash

At primary level, the results provide evidence that rurality has a statistically significant influence on pupils’ attainment in English but not on Maths. Rurality was associated with primary English attainment through interactions with gender and SES background. The findings indicate that rural boys from lower SES backgrounds are a group of primary school pupils who are at risk of lower attainment in English. At post-primary level, a rural educational advantage was present, but the factor of rurality was found to impact on some groups of pupils more strongly than others: for example, pupils from lower SES positions and those pupils that attend non-grammar schools. The results indicate that the gap between urban and rural pupils, at GCSE level, virtually equalises in grammar schools, while in non-grammar schools the gap was found to be much larger (to the advantage of rural pupils). The urban-rural gap between pupils from lower SES backgrounds was also shown to be large, while both urban and rural pupils from high SES backgrounds achieved similar results

Photo of a rural primary school on Google maps

This research is significant in that it identifies previously overlooked groups of pupils who are in need of additional support in order to raise their educational attainment outcomes. Being able to identify these pupils represents the first step in shaping educational policies and practices to promote educational equality by considering the role of urban-rural location. Without the evidence obtained from this research, certain groups of pupils who are at risk of lower educational outcomes would remain invisible and the policy initiatives aimed at increasing educational inequalities may not be targeting the pupils who are most in need.

Author: Dr Gemma Cherry // PhD Supervisors: Professor Jannette Elwood and Dr John Moriarty // PhD Thesis Title: Inequalities in Educational Attainment across Rural and Urban Locations: Secondary Data Analysis of Pupil Outcomes in Northern Ireland

3 reasons why we need a study of small rural schools in Northern Ireland

In our first blog post, we are going to state the main reasons why we think we need a study of small rural schools in Northern Ireland (NI), particularly focusing on their relationship with their communities.


There is literature on small rural schools in different European countries and further afield. However, despite some work in this area (i.e. a policy document paper for the Rural Community Network in 2002; a research paper for the NI Assembly in 2013; a paper on duplication of primary school provision in 2019; and a PhD on social deprivation in rural schools in 2011), there has been no empirical study exclusively focused on small rural schools in NI. NI small rural schools are facing similar challenges to those faced by small rural schools elsewhere, but the NI context is remarkably unique, especially when considering the legacy of the conflict. Small rural schools here exist within a complex, segregated and divided education system.

Much of the research in Northern Ireland has focused on urban areas, largely ignoring rural communities. However, some children and parents living in rural areas are also suffering from the legacy of the conflict, often experiencing feelings of fear and/or mistrust of the ‘other community’. In rural areas, there is often less shared space available than in urban contexts, with a lack of shopping areas and parks. In rural areas, separated social networks are also more obvious with segregated economic, religious, social, political, and sporting structures side by side within a small area. Therefore, a study focusing on the links and relationship between small rural schools and their communities in Northern Ireland is long overdue.


Small school in rural area, now closed because of lack of numbers and cuts in education budgets – © Willie Duffin

Northern Ireland has a long tradition of small schools partly because of the rural character of the region coupled with a segregated and selective school system. There has always been a significant number of small schools. In fact, in 1964, there were as much as over 450 schools with between 26 and 50 pupils. This number has declined rapidly, and already by the early 1990s, there were less than 150 schools with such number of pupils. Every year several small rural schools close or merge, and like others around Europe and worldwide, they continue to be under threat of closure and amalgamation.

Small rural schools in NI have been viewed as less desirable than larger urban schools, and they have also been treated less favourably. Data from the school viability audits has shown that rural schools are more likely to experience a series of enrolment, financial and educational challenges than urban schools do. These issues include provision of a broad curriculum at post-primary; staff opportunities for professional development; difficulties in recruiting teachers and principals; and the threat of closure on the grounds of financial sustainability.

Despite a lack of evidence in this regard, small rural schools are seen as being more expensive and they are thought to have worse academic outcomes than larger urban schools. Multi-grade teaching (or composite classes) is particularly viewed negatively, with many believing that it contributes to poorer standards and outcomes. For instance, in 2016, the Minister for Education stated that, by the end of the planning period, he expected actions to address ‘the issue of primary pupils being taught in a composite class of more than two year groups’. In addition, in order to save money and avoid duplication, there have been calls for small schools (which would be close to other schools) to merge and become integrated schools instead.

On the other hand, pupils in rural schools in NI appeared to perform significantly better in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 than pupils in urban schools, even when pupil characteristics (including eligibility for free school meals and social deprivation as measured in the Super Output Areas) were considered. In addition, Roulston and Cook (2019) identified a range of potential advantages of small rural schools, including improved pedagogical engagement due to smaller staff teams and better school-community relations. There are also implications of closing rural schools for finance, transportation and the community. Indeed, young people living in remote areas with no local school often miss out in education. For instance, they are unable to reach school when there is ice and snow in winter. They can also be more socially isolated. For example, they might not be able to access after-school activities, as there is no bus to leave them home after.

In conclusion, policy decisions are being made within the context of little knowledge on what is the value of these schools for pupils and families and their contribution to the local communities.


We believe such a study would be of value to rural communities and educational professionals, as it would give rural school pupils, teachers, and communities a voice that has not been listened to.

The rural population in Northern Ireland was already growing faster than the urban population before the pandemic. In fact, between 2001 and 2018, while the population in urban areas increased by only 6%, the population in rural areas grew by 16%, meaning that the rural share of the whole NI population rose from 34 per cent to 36 per cent. The fastest growth was concentrated in areas close to urban areas, either mixed rural/urban areas (32%) or less than an hour’s drive from Belfast (21%). It looks like the pandemic might accelerate this growth, as people’s priorities in terms of where to live change, and more people have been forced/encouraged to work from home. This will eventually affect schools in these areas.

The pandemic has also brought other new complexities and has shone light to the difficulties rural communities face in relation to broadband coverage. It has also shown the benefit of having small classes of pupils. Such a timely study will be able to tap into many of these issues.


We are about to start a survey of principals as a first stage of the study, which will be followed with more in-depth case studies of four schools. We would welcome any feedback from our blog readers, so please don’t hesitate to leave us comments below.