Ministers discuss future of local rural schools

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EDUCATION Minister John O’Dowd and Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O’Neill have met to discuss the issue of rural schools.

The Ministers discussed the Rural White Paper Action Plan and the commitments for the Department of Education flowing from it.

Following the meeting, John O’Dowd said: “As Education Minister I must ensure that every young person has access to a quality education. I am quite clear that this applies as much to those living in rural communities as it does to those in urban areas.

“The process of area planning of our education provision is now well under way. This will ensure that we have a network of strong, viable schools able to deliver the full curriculum to their pupils.

“In recent months, following the publication of draft plans for the primary sector, I have heard concerns about the impact of this process on rural schools and communities. I recently met with the Ulster Farmers’ Union on the matter and assured them that area planning is not a numbers game based solely on enrolments.“Today’s meeting provided me with the opportunity to update the Agriculture and Rural Development Minister on progress on the area plans. It also provided us with the opportunity to discuss my Department’s commitments under the Rural White Paper Action Plan and issues such as the promotion of greater out of hours community use of school buildings and the Extended Schools programme in rural areas.”

Minister O’Neill added: “While I recognise that access to a quality education for children in rural areas is our key concern, I highlighted today the important role that rural schools play in ensuring vibrant rural communities and I sought Minister O’Dowd’s assurance that rural needs and circumstances will continue to be taken into account in any policy decisions.

“I acknowledge that the Department of Education’s Sustainable Schools Policy has been rural proofed in line with the Executive’s commitment to rural proof all major policies and I am pleased that the needs of rural communities have been considered.

“I also welcomed the Education Minister’s recent decision not to remove the small schools support factor immediately as part of his review of schools’ funding. We agreed that it was important that rural children are educated in strong, viable schools that offer a broad and rich educational experience and that the work underway to improve how schools can be more effectively planned on an area basis to serve the educational needs of children was the appropriate means of ensuring this.”

Minister O’Neill continued: “I welcome Minister O’Dowd reaffirming his commitment to delivering his Department’s obligations in the Rural White Paper Action Plan. This Plan is a key Executive initiative which aims to improve the quality of life of those living and working in our rural areas through government Departments working together more effectively. Since its launch in June 2012, I am pleased to report that good progress is being made across all departments in delivering the commitments contained within it.”