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Future Schools: Supporting sustainable primary school provision across Northern Ireland

The Education Authority’s latest Strategic Area Plan suggests more than 40% of rural primary schools in Northern Ireland could beunsustainable, with 185 rural primary schools having enrolment numbers below the minimum threshold set by the Department of Education.

In response to this challenge, an award-winning project has been developed by Ulster University (UU) to support communities to explore options for primary school provision in their local area. The Future Schools Project is the winner of the prestigious British Educational Research Association’s Public Engagement and Impact Team Award for 2022.

The Future Schools Project provides support for school communities to undertake self-evaluation in relation to school sustainability. The project also provides guidance on how communities can be engaged to ensure that everyone who lives in the area can have their views heard regarding education preferences.

A detailed toolkit has been created as part of the project which highlights options such as increased sharing of facilities between schools, an amalgamation of schools or the transformation to an integrated school, wherethere is community support. It does not pre-determine pathways for specific schools or communities but instead aims to empower and support them to identify what solutions would work best in their local area.

Dr Jessica Bates, Senior Lecturer at Ulster University’s School of Education explains:

“Planning for education in Northern Ireland has to date largely been focused on consultation with educational and statutory stakeholders. However, given the significant local impact of any decisions made regarding school provision, it is essential that communities have a say, particularly in contexts where there are potential school sustainability issues.

"The Future Schools project aims to put communities at the heart of education planning by providing support and guidance to equip and empower them to engage with the process.”

The project has been developed by researchers at Ulster University (UU) with support from project partner the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) and with funding received from the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.  

Jill Caskey, Parental Engagement Manager for the IEF commented:

“The 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement acknowledged that our education system has a diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and valuesbut concluded that it is not a sustainable system.

The Future Schools project has been developed with this context in mind. As part of the next stage of the project, the IEF and UU plan to reach out to communities and organisations in rural areas across Northern Ireland to raise awareness of the Toolkit resource and how local communities can use it to begin conversations regarding future proofing primary school provision in their area.”  

If you would like more information about the project, please contact:

Dr Jessica Bates, Ulster University:

Jill Caskey, Integrated Education Fund:

The Future Schools Toolkit is available on the Ulster University website:

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