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Small schools still need support

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FAREWELL Martin Hoban makes a presentation on behalf of the community. Pictured from left: Andrea Ruane, Classroom Assistant; Tanya McLoughlin, Principal, and Mary Corcoran, Caretaker after the closure of Glenisland NS in 2016.  Pic: Glenisland Newsflash

National schools
Oisín McGovern

The pandemic has highlighted the many benefits of small rural primary schools and the importance of supporting them. That’s according to one national school teacher who, having taught in Dublin for roughly a decade, has seen the contrast between rural and urban schools first hand.
Nancy Needham, who has worked as a substitute teacher in many schools around Mayo since becoming a mother a few years ago, says that a ‘bigger is better’ attitude among parents could lead to more rural schools being closed.
In a letter to The Mayo News, the Kilmovee woman wrote: “Parents often express a concern that a child would not be able for the transition to second level from a small country school… however, in 15 years of teaching, I have rarely found this.
“By the end of sixth class, children are ready to spread their wings in secondary, regardless of their primary experience. Sometimes, making the move with fewer peers even allows a child more freedom at second level to find new friends, and gain more independence.”

Sense of belonging
Nancy, who is married to a teacher from Achill, says that many parents are overlooking the benefits of rural schools, particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic.
“There is a sense of community, and belonging, in a country school that is hard to find nowadays,” she says.
“We have lost our local shops and our post offices. Many people no longer attend Sunday Mass, and local pubs are also struggling to keep their doors open.
“Many people living rurally no longer know their neighbours, as they live such busy lives.”
When The Mayo News spoke to Nancy last week, she spoke about her own firsthand experience of seeing how a primary school can help rural communities to integrate.
“In Dublin and in the bigger schools the teacher has a lot of anonymity. A teacher is just a teacher, they just don’t know very much about you. There’s a lot more personality involved in a small school,” she says.
“Kids get to know you far better, parents get to know you far better. Parents themselves get to know each other better than they do in a big school.”
Nancy believes people can be almost oblivious as to how much community activity is going on around them. She admits that it after they bought a house in Islandeady, it wasn’t until their son started in the school next door that they started to really get to know their neighbours.
And there’s an environmental benefit of schooling children locally too, with less mileage being clocking up on school runs.

Struggle
Nancy has also noticed another reason for the decline in local-school enrolment numbers: The trend whereby children attend a primary school after attending the adjoining pre-school.
“Instead of going to the local schools they’re all going together to one of the bigger schools,” she says. “Parents seem to think that the people that you’ve been hanging around with when you’re three are going to be your friends forever, and they’re really not.”
The lack or perceived lack of out-of-hours facilities has also been a factor.
“There’s also the after-school clubs in the bigger schools. [Parents say] ‘I can send him there in morning and he can have his breakfast there and I won’t have to pick him up until 4 because he’ll be doing his computer class’. They think they won’t be getting that out of the small country school – but they don’t necessarily do their research.”
In recent months, reports of rising house prices in rural areas have indicated that more people are moving to the countryside to realise the full benefits of remote working.
However, Nancy believes that this may not necessarily correlate with increased numbers in schools that are already struggling.
Citing the example of the closure Glenisland NS in 2016, she believes that more closures could follow if smaller schools aren’t supported.
“Kilmovee was in the news last August because a family came down from Dublin and they moved five children into [the local] school, which saved the third teacher. People say they’re moving, houses are being sold… I haven’t seen it yet, I haven’t heard of any schools that are seeing an influx of children yet,” she says.
“When Glenisland school closed, there was a quote [in The Mayo News] from one local who said: ‘All we’ve got left now is the graveyard’. You get to the point where so much has shut down that there’s nowhere for people to gather, there’s nothing that holds together the community at all.
“People will regret that when the time comes.”

ILH 40084-21-02 Hastings Benefit MPU v4