Representatives of the General Synod Board of Education (RI) attended a top-level symposium, involving all stakeholders and partners in education, on the role and future of small primary schools. They were there at the invitation of the Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, TD.
Small primary schools are classified as schools of four teachers or less. Nearly 80% of Church of Ireland primary schools, both urban and rural, are four teacher or less and therefore regarded as ‘small’ schools.
Minister McHugh, who is a TD for Donegal, which has a significant number of small primary schools, set the tone for the symposium in highlighting that small schools were an essential part of the societal and community infrastructure in modern Ireland. The Minister asked participants to reflect on how small schools could be strengthened and supported and to consider also how the allocation of resources to small schools could be done in a more efficient or “smarter” way. Minister Michael Ring, Minister for Rural and Community Affairs, joined the symposium and took the opportunity to emphasise the importance of small primary schools to the delivery of education to communities around the country, both rural and urban.
In his capacity as chairman of the General Synod Board of Education (RI), Archbishop Michael Jackson addressed the symposium. Drawing on international examples of support for smaller schools, specifically in the Scandinavian countries and also in the UK, Archbishop Michael Jackson’s contribution drew on the research co–funded by the GS Board of Education, the Church of Ireland College of Education, the Church of Ireland Primary School Managers’ Association and DCU, on small schools in 2016 by the Rev Professor Anne Lodge and the Rev Dr David Tuohy. The Archbishop emphasised the importance of smaller primary schools to the Church of Ireland community but also made the wider point that the research shows that small schools are valued by parents; deliver a quality educational experience and welcomed the fact that government was recognising this important role. He also noted that in other jurisdictions small schools have been used as a model to improve teaching and learning in larger schools.
The Archbishop went on to agree with the Minister that now is the time to “reframe thinking” regarding small schools and highlighted that the research found that small primary schools tended to be happy and caring environments where independent and peer learning across various subjects on the curriculum in multi–grade settings is occurring daily. Communities served by small schools expressed great pride in their schools and valued the teaching staff, the Archbishop added.
While highlighting the positive aspects of life in small schools, the Archbishop advised the symposium that research also clearly showed that principals in small schools were experiencing high levels of stress associated with the expectations and workload that the reality of being a principal in a small school brings. He also noted that these principals expressed pride in their work and in their schools. Teachers too reported experiencing a greater workload because of the demands of working in multi–level classes. Many noted the lack of initial teacher education or CPD support for this specialist work. They also noted that lack of text books and resources for multi–level classes because publishers of educational materials assume that single–level classes are the norm.
In answering the Minister’s challenge to the symposium to reflect on new or innovative ways to support small schools, the Archbishop suggested a range of specific issues should be explored such as: changing the mindset from single grade classroom resources and curriculum delivery only to creating a more nuanced approach to recognise the multi–grade classroom reality of small schools and to think “spirally” about curriculum. The Archbishop also suggested that detailed consideration be given to how resources could be shared or clustered between a number of schools, how it could be harnessed to reduce the level of administration on principals, how CPD focused specifically on teaching in small schools and multi–level classes should be developed and that all ITE providers should prepare their graduates to undertake multi–class teaching. However, he warned about the potentially negative impact on both schools and the impacted personnel if key human resources such as the principal or the board of management were shared across schools.
The afternoon sessions of the symposium were in round table discussion format and this gave the opportunity for the other representatives from the GS Board of Education (RI), the Rev Professor Anne Lodge, Dr Ken Fennelly and Ms Eimear Ryan, to join the conversation on the outworking of the suggested supports to small schools. The reporting back from each of these round tables made it clear that many of the participants were alert to the problems of a ‘one–size–fits–all’ approach to funding, teacher allocation and resourcing. They were also critical of the rapid–roll–out of additional administrative demands on schools and noted that these increased demands had a particularly negative impact on small schools. At the very least, it was argued that the 2011 austerity cuts need to be reversed to enable small schools to flourish into the future.
Minister McHugh also took an active part in the afternoon sessions and was interested to learn of all the detailed suggestions brought forward by participants in the symposium.
The content and policy decisions to be made arising out of the symposium will be considered further by the Minister and his department also at the Primary Education Forum which will meet again in the autumn.
Report by Lynn Glanville, Communications Officer for Dublin & Glendalough.