Small is beautiful as country areas fight to retain schools
First the post offices closed, then the pubs. Are the last outposts of rural life doomed?
The new Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, is likely to face one of his toughest political battles as his department moves to shut down tiny rural schools.
Local communities will fight a rearguard action to retain small village schools, which are under threat of closure from recommendations in Colm McCarthy's An Bord Snip report.
The McCarthy report said there was scope to cut the number of primary schools.
The report stated that there were 659 primaries with fewer than 50 pupils.
If these were merged with other schools, Colm McCarthy estimated that this would save 300 teachers, or about €18m in annual salary costs.
Further mergers of the 851 schools in the 50-100 pupil category would cut the number of teachers by 200, and save another €9m annually, according the McCarthy report.
Alarm bells have started ringing across rural Ireland over the past month as the department starts a 'Value for Money Review of Small Primary Schools'.
Figures provided by the Department of Education appear to show that many small schools are unsustainable. The 2010 figures showed that there were 15 schools with fewer than 10 pupils.
Mantua National School near Elphin in Co Roscommon is believed to be one of the smallest in the country, with just six pupils.
The Roscommon Herald reported last week that it was one of 41 primaries in the county with fewer than 50 children.
Shutting down or merging small schools may look like a simple matter, but it is a political and administrative minefield. The savings may be much more limited than those envisaged in the McCarthy report, while the social costs are likely to be huge.
Pat Goff, president of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN), said: "There is no educational reason for shutting down small rural schools. All the evidence suggests that children do just as well or perform better in them.
"When you shut down a school you are killing part of the rural community. Many communities have been left without a post office and a garda station. All that is left is the school.''
While it is inevitable that tiny schools will disappear, Pat Goff says there will be a lot of practical difficulties with large-scale closures.
"In the short-term, there are likely to be extra costs involved, including new accommodation and transport.''
If two primaries merge, the department may have to pay for extra classrooms.
There is also the practical problem of staffing arrangements for the merged schools.
Under the current system, when two schools amalgamate, both principals are retained; one is head of the school and the other is a "privileged assistant''.
The INTO supports amalgamation of schools where this is the clear wish of the school community.
But the INTO's general secretary Sheila Nunan said financial issues should not be the only concern.
She said: "Other considerations must be taken into account such as the adverse effect for the child who is being bussed to a different environment, the importance of the rural school to the community, and its role in the preservation of local history, culture, and folklore.''
There are other complex issues that the Department of Education will have to deal with when considering the closure of small schools.
Some small schools are under the patronage of the Church of Ireland, and there may not be a similar one within easy reach.
The INTO opposes amalgamation where the language of instruction in one school is English, and the other Irish.
There is widespread acceptance that Irish in Gaeltacht areas was weakened in the 1960s and 1970s when different types of school were merged.
Pat Goff of the IPPN said any programme of closures should be considered in conjunction with moves to take schools out of Catholic control.
Many small schools have only recently been refurbished and provided with new buildings. Does it make sense to close these upgraded facilities?
Helen Carroll, the Ear to the Ground presenter, sends her nine-year-old daughter Katie to a small 51-pupil national school in Johnswell near her home Co Kilkenny.
"It is absolutely vital for the health of the local community that schools such as this are retained. It provides a very good education.
"My daughter gets the sort of personal attention that you mightn't get in a bigger school," she says.
Helen Carroll believes that there is an onus on parents to support their local schools.
"People do not realise how important the local school or post office is to a rural community until it is gone, and then it is too late.''
Ruairi Quinn will be keen to make savings, but he may tread warily when shutting down schools.
As one seasoned observer of the education scene noted, "There is maximum political pain involved in this, and very little financial gain.''