Assembly debates the future of small rural schools

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Mervyn Storey, who chairs the Education Committee, spoke for the DUP motion calling for a holistic solution to the future of rural schools, on 14 May 2013.

He said it was a genuine attempt to ensure "a degree of equity, fairness when it comes to this issue".

Mr Storey said the current policy regarding rural schools was "showing widespread fear among schools" that many would be closed, and this resulted in schools being closed voluntarily.

The holistic approach envisaged in the motion was about more than bricks and mortar but "about everything else that defines makes up the tapestry of our rural community," he said.

Danny Kinahan moved the UUP amendment calling for a legislative presumption against the closure of rural schools and a duty to consider the impact closure would have on the rural community.

"The local school may be all that is left to hold the rural community together," he said.

Chris Hazzard of Sinn Fein said he agreed with the sentiments of the motion, and he defended the policy of area-based planning as a means to raise standards and tackle underachievement.

The SDLP's Sean Rogers backed the motion and the amendment.

"The shop and the post office may have gone but the school is the heart of the community," he said.

Trevor Lunn of Alliance said that once schools had been named as candidates for possible closure "you get this self-fulfilling prophecy idea". Parents voted with their feet and schools closed, he said.

He also criticised the definition of rural. "I don't regard Lisburn as a rural area - certainly not the centre of it. We are a city," he said.

Replying to the debate, the education minister said very few of the speakers had mentioned the pupils.

John O'Dowd said he was "a born and reared rural boy" and he understood the connection between the rural school and its community.

The minister said this must be balanced by the need for "a quality education experience for children".

Mr O'Dowd said it was "not a numbers game".

"No decision has been made with regard to any rural or urban primary school," he said.

The amended motion was passed on an oral vote.

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