A two-year action research project aimed at supporting small rural schools has been announced by the government.

The innovative project aims to encourage small schools to cluster together in local groups, enabling them to collaborate and identify common challenges and trial innovative solutions.

This project is being developed by a working group of school management bodies and teachers’ unions with the Department for Education, as part of the programme of work of the Primary Education Forum (PEF). The PEF comprises all primary education partners, including parent representatives, working collaboratively with the Department of Education.

Six project clusters of small schools will be formed, two in Galway, and one in each of Donegal, Kerry, Wicklow, and Waterford, consisting of between three and five schools per cluster. The clusters will be supported by part-time local coordinators sponsored by the education partners, working with a national coordinator under the guidance of a steering group. As an integral part of the project an evaluation will take place and a final report, including analysis of scalability of actions undertaken, will be compiled.

Minister Foley said:

All across the country, tremendous energy and local support is provided to our small schools. They are valued hugely in our communities, and play an important role in community life. This research project will harness some of that energy and will support schools to collaborate in clusters and identify possible solutions to some of the challenges they face.

 Small schools’ leaders and school communities have themselves identified that there is huge potential for collaboration in finding workable solutions. Small schools themselves are best placed to know what might and might not work for them. It is not expected that all of the activities tried out will be immediately successful; the aim is to provide an opportunity over a two year period to experiment safely.

 The Programme for Government commits to continuing to recognise the importance of small schools to communities across Ireland and this innovation provides tangible support to that commitment.

 I have no doubt that the schools participating across the six clusters in this project will provide valuable insights and ideas into supports that can be developed and replicated across small schools.

Some examples of innovative approaches that may be taken by school clusters in the action research project include:

  • ·         Sharing teaching and learning of aspects of the curriculum, including exploring how ICT can link the cluster schools.
  • ·         Closer collaboration between schools for the purposes of pupils sharing and experiencing common activities and or SEN provision.
  • ·         Considering how best to support maintenance matters such as IT systems/services and assessing and sharing procurement and costs.
  • ·         Exploring aspects of school leadership such as a number of schools under the management of one school principal, existing supports in the system for teaching
  •           principals and the empowerment of middle leadership teams across clusters.

Funding will be in place for the project’s two-year lifetime and schools will not be asked to make a financial contribution to take part.

Participating schools have been communicated with and the project will commence in the new school year.

The project will be overseen and supported by a steering group including representatives of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) The General Synod Board of Education of the Church of Ireland Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) and the Department.

Small schools are defined for statistical purposes as schools with four mainstream teachers or fewer. Schools meeting this definition constitute 44 per cent of all primary schools – around 1,360 individual schools – and account for 14.2 per cent of all students.

All of the activity in the two-year project will be driven by the participating schools, working together with their cluster coordinator. During this time, all existing scheduled staffing levels will be secured; for example, if enrolment levels fall, scheduled teaching post numbers in the schools involved will not be reduced.

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