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.

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.