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.

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.