Katherine Donnelly: 'Rural schools struggle to stay open as parents follow the jobs'

Signs abound on many rural roads inviting enrolments to local primary schools next September, providing an inkling even to passing motorists that the pools of pupils that have kept the roll books going for decades are drying up.

The challenge facing these schools is, most likely, what is showing up in the latest Department of Education figures.

While maintaining numbers for one and two-teacher schools is one issue, there is growing anecdotal evidence of struggles further up the line, with some principals battling to retain enough pupils to hold on to their third teacher.

Small primary schools, generally in rural areas and particularly in the west, are a distinctive feature of Ireland and, like the Garda station, post office and pub, are highly valued by communities as a sign that their heart is still beating.

About 23pc of primary schools – 708 – have 60 or fewer pupils enrolled this year, but they represent only 4pc of enrolments. The number of such schools has dropped 10pc since 2010, with their enrolments down by an even greater 15pc over the same period. There is no Government policy to close small schools, but an enrolments slide can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

High birth rates since the late 1990s brought a national upswing in primary pupil numbers, but that demographic bubble has moved through to post-primary. Nationally, enrolments in primary schools have peaked; demand continues to rise in communities where populations are growing, elsewhere some schools are seeing numbers fall or at risk of falling.

This is no surprise to anyone watching trends in population or other key indicators.

According to the 2016 Census, 80pc of population growth since 2011 was in urban areas, while the largest increase in rural population was in Cork county. Evidence of both trends is borne out in the latest enrolments breakdown, because population growth usually translates as young families who very quickly need primary school places for their children.

The recent ‘Graduate Outcomes’ survey from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) also provides evidence of an urban-rural divide – most starkly east-west – in its presentation of where the class of 2017 was working nine months after leaving college.

Some 43pc of honours graduates were employed in Dublin, compared with 2pc each in Kerry, Clare and Mayo, 1pc in Donegal and 0pc in Leitrim. The graduates, and others of their generation, follow the jobs; they are the parents of the future but, increasingly, are leaving for college and not returning to their rural home.

Project 2040 is the latest State policy aimed at creating a sustainable future for all. Its ambitions include strengthening rural economies and communities and managing urban growth. It promises ongoing investment in education, including school places, but it seems unlikely that it will stop the trend of small school closures.

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