Rural Ireland is at a crossroads – and at the centre are rural schools.
At present, a school serves as a focal point in many a village, a place for the community to gather, a place where newcomers can get to know their neighbours, and a place for younger generations to play an active role in rural life.
But all of this could be on the brink of changing.
Take Johnswell National School, for example. With 54 pupils this year, it is just on the right side of the number required to maintain its status as a three-teacher school.
But that number is inching higher and higher, making it tougher and tougher for schools to make the cut.
Set at 49 a couple of years ago and then raised to 51, it goes up to 54 students for next year and then 56 students the following year.
“We are always fighting on the numbers issue, and you could lose a teacher because of it,” said Johnswell NS principal Anne Holohan. “In a small school it is such a loss – it’s not great for a big school either, but for us it is even worse.”
With a large sixth-class of 11 students leaving the school at the end of this academic year, they are making an extra push to bring in new students for the coming year.
And for what started out as a two-classroom school and has expanded exponentially, including an extension that more than doubled the size of the school in 2008 and initiatives from cookery and sport to working towards their Green Flag and hosting community events, there’s a lot on the line.
“Nobody wants to take a retro step. Everybody wants to go forward,” Ms Holohan said.
Future of rural communities
And it isn’t just the schools at stake, said Johnswell NS teacher Nicola Garrahy, whose position at the school is at risk of being cut.
Losing a teacher would change the setup of the school and could discourage parents from sending their children there – a slippery slope that could lead to school closures in just a few years, Ms Garrahy said.
“Parents do not want the school to go back to a two-teacher school. They are afraid of what that might mean,” she said. “People look at a smaller school and say, if they start losing teachers, is that the end of the school? And what does that mean for the community? So many services have been cut; the school is the last remaining link.”
The continuing viability of small schools in the countryside will in a large way determine the future direction of rural Ireland.
“Rural life in Ireland has been so much a part of getting us where we are today,” Ms Garrahy said. “Farming and rural industry are so important to us, and important to getting us out of the recession. We need to get people to embrace rural life, and by closing rural schools it is going to have the complete opposite effect.”
“We are lucky,” she said of Johnswell, with its community hall, a badminton club, soccer, a youth club and Active Retirement events. “But yet the school has such an important part to play. If you don’t have a school, you start to lose getting the children involved in the area.”
“We are like a lot of other small schools where children would travel from town because of the spirit of community in a small school,” she said. “In a rural area, a school is like a family. You are tearing away at the heart of it if you are trying to take the schools out.”
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