“WE are committed to doing everything we can to protect and maintain the status of our wonderful little school.”
Inspiring words spoken by Mrs Gemma Harrison, headteacher of Kingsmills Primary school , following the introduction of a pre-publication consultation by the Education Authority for the proposed closure of her school which has been a cornerstone of the community for the past 150 years.
In the pre-publication consultation report published by Education Authority the organisation, which is responsible for education services throughout Northern Ireland , cited the “downturn in enrolment numbers” that Kingsmill primary has faced over the past number of years, as well as the schools deficit of -£30,517 that is “projected to increase over the next 2 years” as two primary factors that have contributed to the decision taken to published the consultation, which may be viewed as the first step on the path towards the schools eventual closure.
The pre-consultation report comes as part of the Education Authorities wider area-based plan which “aims to improve the quality of educational provision for all pupils by providing a network of sustainable schools that are the right type, size and located in the right place at the right time.”
The area-based plan itself is based within the Sustainable Schools Policy first published in 2009. This policy outlines the criteria “that school managing authorities should consider when making decisions affecting the best use of resources in order to deliver an excellent education to children and young people.” The policy sets out 6 sustainability criteria that are used to assess existing and future education provision to ensure it adequately meets the needs of pupils, of which “stable enrolment trends "and “sound financial position” are cited as two of the aforementioned sustainability criteria.
However also cited alongside these factors is another criterion labeled “Quality of Education”, which assesses the level of educational experience that is delivered within an educational institution. It is this sustainability criteria which Mrs Harrison believes has not been fully appreciated by the Education Authority in their decision to publish the pre-publication consultation regarding the proposed discontinuation of Kingsmill Primary, with the head teacher stating that although is it is know that in Kingsmills they “ offer an excellent quality of educational experience”, she does not feel that “the quality educational experience” and everything Kingsmills primary has to offer their students has “been fully taken into account.”
“The EA produced a sustainable school's policy in 2009. This was when Catriona Ruane was the Education minister. As a result of this area-based plans were drawn up and in 2019 Kingsmill primary school was announced as part of this wider plan. They also incorporated six sustainability criteria which schools are measured upon.
“We feel that as a school out of the six sustainability criteria we are meeting a lot of them. Catriona Ruane herself stated in the policy that school sustainability should first and foremost be about the quality of the educational experience. At Kingsmills we know that we offer an excellent quality of educational experience. Unfortunately, these qualities have not been fully appreciated and taken into account by the Education Authority
“The EA have said that their main focus is on the non-financial drivers and their focus is on the quality of education and whether it could be improved by moving our children to another school. The sustainability school's policy cites first and foremost that a quality educational experience should be a main factor in determining a school's sustainability with other factors as well. I can only say as the principal of the school that I have been overwhelmed by the support of the parents who have had their own personal stories of how Kingsmills primary school both past and present provided the ideal environment for their children to learn and develop. Whether this be anecdotal stories of the yearly academic grading that our children receive or pastoral section report it is clear that the educational standard here at Kingsmill primary school could not be bettered. I do therefore think it is clear that I do not agree with the reasons cited by the EA for the closure of the school.
“Again, the sustainability policy refers to the fact that first and foremost there should be a quality educational experience. We do not feel that the quality educational experience and everything we offer has been fully taken into accountably the Education Authority.
While Mrs Harrison states that as a small school the “threat of closure has never been far away”, she believes that “the area plan process that was published in 2019 only exacerbated this problem.” Despite this fact families have still made the decision to keep their children at Kingsmills Primary school and not move them to a different institution for a myriad of reasons, not least in the which Mrs Harrison cites as being “the overarching pastoral care of every pupil in the school” as well as the “wide range of extra-curricular activates” available at the school.
“To be honest as a small school the threat of closure has never been far away, but the area plan process that was published in 2019 only exacerbated this problem.
“That being said the families that we have had at the school have remained with us for all of the benefits that we offer and will continue to offer. These namely are the overarching pastoral care and child protection of every pupil in the school as well as a wide range of extra-curricular activates and access to a broad and balanced education and opportunities to extend and consolidate learning and excellent links with the wider community.”
Regarding the fact that in the pre-publication consultation report Kingsmills primary school is noted by the Education Authority to have a deficit of -£30517, with the body citing that the “school is not operating within its in year budget” which in turn undermines one of the six key sustainability criteria laid in place by the sustainable schools policy, Mrs Harrison draws attention to the fact that “for several years now schools have suffered a decline in real-term funding and coupled with increasing costs it has become “harder and harder to remain viable” and that if you look around the province “there are very few schools, even big schools that are filled to the brim, that are not in debt.”
“It is sad to say that for several years now schools have suffered a decline in real-term funding and coupled with increasing costs it has become harder and harder to remain viable. We are a smaller school and of course the impact here would be more acute than what would be seen in a larger school. Saying that we are not on our own. We are amongst many of the schools in the province that are in a deficit and are facing a shortage of funding.
“What school is not in debt? Going around the province there are very few schools, even big schools that are filled to the brim, that are not in debt. It is simply a result of a lack of funding. Funding has depreciated and has gone down, year and year whilst national insurance and a lot of things that employers have to pay come directly out of the budget.
“ My frustration is that while we have been long use to managing with limited resources, experience has shown that money on many levels within the EA is ineffectively managed. It appears to me that much more work needs to be done to focus resources back into the frontline of teaching. The question that needs to be asked here is how could the overall budget be used better.”
In addition to expressing her opinion that the quality of educational experience delivered at Kingsmills primary should be used as the main factors in the Education Authorities determination as to whether or not her school should remain open, Mrs Harrison also voiced her criticism regarding the apparent lack of personal consideration that the EA has shown towards the teachers, parents and staff of Kingsmills Primary, with the headteacher claiming that, to date, “there has been little consideration shown by the EA towards Kingsmills.”
“Although we have a long road to go and there still exists the opportunity for the EA to show consideration towards the children and the parent and our staff at Kingsmill, to date there has been little consideration shown by the EA towards Kingsmill.
“At a recent consultation meeting the EA cited a number of generic benefits that would be associated with closing our school. They also cited generic studies that have been undertaken to show that the negative impact on children's wellbeing if they have to move school are minimal.
“These are studies that have taken a previous year of a school that has closed. They have asked a number of questions to the children within these schools and we feel that unfortunately this generic approach and lack of empathy did not land well as the EA faced a number of very passionate challenges from families of children at the school.
“These families are facing significant disruption and uncertainty. This applies to all children in Kingsmills, but especially those with additional needs or especially those in a vulnerable situation are in a very testing time. These are children that have developed relationships with classroom assistants and staff and the children who know routine within the school are going to have to be moved.
“It will be a difficult time for Children who struggle to do this. Parents have made a number of pleas and testimonies in support of the experience that children are receiving her in Kingsmill. The EA now appear to be taking these concerns on board but I do think that they really need to increase their levels of sympathy and empathy. This applies regardless of the outcome.
“I would also like to note that the EA did not provide adequate notice in the weeks leading up to the recent meeting held and that the process landed upon us and happened very quickly. They were also asked to attend the school in person and to meet the parents face to face, however they declined preferring to host the meeting by Zoom. We do feel that the Education Authority does need to move forward with this process a little bit more sensitively.
“Obviously, we hope that the school remains open in the long term, but as we move forward through this year and we negotiate the timeframe's and the deadlines given, the EA have the potential to do significant damage to the school and community depending on how they handle this process.”