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Widespread closure of rural schools must be avoided

Story by Tadhg Carey

Wednesday, 23rd March, 2011 5:00pm

Proposals to possibly close or amalgamate rural schools are currently being examined by the Department of Education and Skills.

Last week the department received final representations from interest groups as it embarks on a review of all schools with fewer than 50 pupils to examine whether they represent value for money.

When the process was announced early in the year, then Labour education spokesman Ruairi Quinn (now Minister for Education) welcomed the review, saying the country was not getting "value for money" from the current set up.

Mr Quinn said he favoured clustering small schools together, so they could look at options such as having all the children in junior classes taught in one school and those in senior classes taught in another nearby. He also said they could share secretaries and a board of management.

The new Minister's apparent willingness to consider restructuring rural schools will be an issue of concern for local communities across the Midlands.

Apparently, one fifth of all primary schools in Ireland - or just under 600 - cater for fewer than 50 pupils. They are all two or one-teacher schools and most are in rural areas.

The McCarthy report recommended amalgamating all of these schools with others to save an estimated €18m.

The Government should step forward with caution though.

There may well be justifiable cases where several small rural schools in close proximity to each other could be clustered or amalgamated. There may also be question marks over the long-term viability of one-teacher schools due to possible health and safety issues.

But these exceptions shouldn't be used to allow a wholesale dismantling of the existing rural schools network.

In many cases, the notion of amalgamating small rural schools makes little sense - as they tend to serve their own small rural hinterlands and may not be close to any other small rural school. There's the potential cost too of having to build an extension or even a new school to facilitate the amalgamated schools.

In many small rural areas, the presence of a local school means that parents can transport their kids to and from school. If the service is further away, there may also be extra costs to the State of providing formal school bus transport systems.

More importantly though is that which is less easily calculated but far more important: the social cost of closing a further rural service.

Ireland is a predominantly rural country. But in recent years, the closure of rural garda stations, rural post offices and the decline of the village pub means that rural life is being dismantled.

Broadband provision in parts of rural Ireland is still poor, local churches are also being clustered due to declining vocations, turf cutting rights are under threat and in the last decade or two there has been a flight of farmers from the land.

Rural Ireland appears to be an easy target at present and whilst in our current economic woes every financial saving should be considered - we must also examine the wider impact on our society of proposed cutbacks.

In that context, the wholesale closure of rural schools would be a step too far.

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