The importance of rural schools
John O'Kane, former Principal of St Paul's Primary School, Irvinestown was the Guest Speaker at the recent Awards Ceremony celebrated in St Mary's College, Irvinestown. Mr O'Kane also sits on Fermanagh District Council and on the Western Education and Library Board.
Mr O'Kane's topic for the evening was the value of the rural school.
He started by stating that all schools in this country are by definition, rural schools and outlined the many benefits that a local school brings to its community and gave the examples of employment and business opportunities, as well as connection to parish life.
The guest speaker talked about the importance of rural schools in providing a curriculum and an experience with emphasis on success, achievement, inclusion (of those with specific learning needs and of those newly moved into our communities with language needs) and the ability to ensure that pupils emerge with the skills and personal attributes, the creativity, flexibility and working within teams, as demanded by the modern workplace and as demanded by the New Northern Ireland Curriculum with its emphasis on values, sense of place, community and qualitative of life.
Mr O'Kane then went onto talk about sizes of schools, and the fact that the data collected by the Department of Education doesn't differentiate between rural and urban schools.
There is general agreement that size isn't necessarily relevant in deciding what makes a good school. The factors which are relevant are the delivery of the curriculum, the ethos and values of a school, the quality of teaching along with the leadership of the Principal and the school's sense of place and linkage with its community.
He cited many examples of the full extent to which St Mary's is equipped to meet these requirements, citing in particular the achievements of the school's leavers this year in exceeding the Northern Ireland average in every subject. Mr O'Kane also outlined the extra curricular areas where St Mary's pupils had excelled over the past months, and attributed this success to the rural school, asserting that in the smaller school, where personalised learning means that every single child can have their own curriculum written for them, where staff know their pupils personally, and vice versa; where pupils, especially those with learning difficulties, feel secure; in this school are the pupils advantaged, in these schools can parents rest assured in the secure knowledge that their child's every need is being met, and met well.
Comparisons were drawn between the experiences of the United States, where educationalists assert that smaller is now better. He also asked the audience to consider whether the larger schools which have emerged under Labour leadership are an example of where we in Northern Ireland want to move, as we reflect on their difficulties in the reports of the media?
Mr O'Kane went on to discuss the importance of staff who are ready to embrace the challenges of the new curriculum, using new technology to access relevant courses and training and outlined all the community partnerships that staff within the school have built up with other statutory and voluntary bodies and organisations over the years.
To conclude, Mr O'Kane reflected on the ambition and the capability of the Principal and the Management Team to continue raising the profile of St. Mary's, strengthening their success as a top ; albeit rural ; secondary school flourishing in all areas.