The proliferation of schools, management bodies and sectoral support organisations reflects the socio-cultural and political history of division in Northern Irish society. However, as recognised by government, education stakeholders and researchers, one of the biggest challenges facing the education system here, particularly in terms of primary school provision, is that it is not sustainable as duplication in provision has contributed to unfilled pupil places within the system.
The education system has a diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and values. However it is not sustainable.
(The New Decade, New Approach Deal, UK and Irish governments, January 2020, p. 43)
Within education in Northern Ireland, Area Planning focuses on providing a ‘viable and sustainable’ network of schools ‘that are of the right type, the right size, located in the right place at the right time and have a focus on raising standards’ (DENI, 2021).
In seeking to address the challenges relating to school sustainability, we asked ourselves two fundamental questions:
- How can parent and community voices be heard in the Area Planning process, particularly where there is a need for some restructuring of provision?
- How can early engagement in the process be facilitated to ensure proactive and democratic dialogue?
The Future Schools Project (2021–22) developed by researchers from Ulster University (UU) with funding partner the Integrated Education Fund, is funded by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) through their Civic Innovation Programme, the core aim of which is: ‘To support initiatives that put people at the centre of decision-making in Northern Ireland.’
The aims of the project are to support communities to explore whether there are more sustainable options for primary school provision in their geographic area and to provide guidance on how this could be progressed.
Notwithstanding Covid-19 restrictions, there has been a strong willingness to participate in the project. This has involved:
- meetings with relevant education stakeholders and other organisations
- engagement with parents about their views on primary school provision, through:
- NI-wide survey of parents
- Community Conversations which provided an opportunity for qualitative discussion with interested parents
- A virtual parent engagement event which was an opportunity for the project team to report back on project findings and and gather feedback from parents
- NI-wide survey of school governors.
From this work the UU team developed the Future Schools Toolkit. This toolkit is intended to support school communities to critically examine their sustainability and consider if a different provision for the area – such as increased sharing of facilities, amalgamation or transformation to an integrated school – would be more sustainable for the school and the wider community in the longer term. The three-part structure of the toolkit is designed to:
- provide support and guidance enabling schools and the communities within which they are located to undertake self-evaluation in relation to school sustainability using the Department of Education’s Sustainable Schools criteria and indicators
- to provide guidance in using the Community Conversation methodology to engage communities in a shared exploration about the way forward
- to develop a pathways resource that will support communities to work with the managing authorities towards a realistic, sustainable solution for school provision in the area.
The toolkit was officially launched at Stormont on 27 May 2022 and feedback from parents, school leaders and policy stakeholders has endorsed its value as a tool for civic engagement.
If, at some stage, there are pressures on keeping both schools sustainable we need to work together to keep the best of what we’ve got – we need to make decisions about what we want before we are told what is going to be happening. (Parent participant)
The toolkit can encourage communities to be proactive in determining their own future. It also provides opportunities for cross sectoral discussions on school provision in particular areas. (Primary school principal)
The Education Authority fully supports the toolkit’s intention to support school leadership to engage at an early stage and critically examine the sustainability of their school while engaging with local communities on the type of school provision that will provide a sustainable, high-quality educational experience for the future. In doing so, the Education Authority believes that the toolkit will further aid communities to meaningfully engage with educational planning, and Area Planning in particular, to identify sustainable area-based solutions that best meet the needs of their children and young people in their area. (Head of Area Planning, Education Authority)
Department of Education Northern Ireland [DENI]. (2021). Area planning guidance 2022-2027. https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/area-planning-guidance-2022-2027