Last week, the Bishop of Kerry announced that the Gap of Dunloe National School in the Black Valley is to close.
In many ways, this made sense; after all, it has just two pupils. Much like post offices and rural pubs, closures are inevitable when the numbers aren’t there.
However, no issue is that simple; numbers should not be the only consideration. Yes, of course, a two-pupil enrolment is not viable, but what, as TD Michael Healy-Rae so pointedly put it, what if it has 10 to 15 pupils – or more – in the future?
COVID has changed the way we live, forever, and there is no going back. Remote working has changed our lives. The focus by the Government is now on encouraging people to live in rural communities, primarily due to lack of housing in larger urban hubs. This has served, mainly, to spread the housing problem across the country, and now demand far outstrips volume in all locations from Dublin to the Black Valley.
However, while housing stock is a key problem to be tackled, houses and their households need services – schools, shops, pubs and community centres.
In headlines this week, the Department of Education came under fire for claims it was standing in the way of badly needed housing as it was concerned about a lack of school spaces for the children of these houses.
In Tralee, a new housing development in Lohercannon is to get a school within the development, providing the essential services that these homes will need.
In recent months, there have been countless announcements of funding for hubs. Cromane received €100,000 for a connected hub in the former national school, with €2m allocated for a digital hub in Ballinskelligs. Plans are underway in Killorglin for a hub, and some funding has been announced for the initial steps in the project.
Sneem has already opened and has a successful hub that has served to increase pupils in nearby Tahilla NS which, prior to becoming a community school, had seen declining numbers. A solution for the Black Valley, maybe, but a discussion for another day.
However, growth in one location leads to decline in another, if even just temporarily.
All these hubs needs school places around them, and while the Black Valley doesn’t have a hub, it may some day, and as remote working continues to grow, it may become a place to both live and work in.
As the community put it in their petition to the Bishop of Kerry, they have been working hard to rebuild the area:
“The Black Valley residents have been working with the local council, politicians and other agencies on the regeneration of our community. We are advancing technology and are working on plans to build a community / heritage centre. We see the school as a central part of our community going into the future. We would welcome a meeting to discuss the potential our school and community has to offer.”
And this is what is key to the future of rural communities – all options must be looked at before taking the decision to close any service that may be vital for the future of these communities. The Black Valley has, it has to be said, had low student numbers in recent years, but while the adage “if you don’t use it, you will lose it” could come into play, it is never that simple, and future growth is possible.
Attempts to change the school to a Gaelscoil – one such suggestion put forward to boost enrolment – have now been abandoned with the decision to close the school, and the community has been left to fight to save it.
The decision to close the school lies with the patron – in this case, the Bishop of Kerry – and it effectively hands the Minister for Education a get-out clause. On one hand, her Government is looking to save rural communities and, on the other hand, they have no say in the closure of a vital service in such communities.
Debate about local services has rumbled for years when it comes to post offices which, in many local communities, serve as shops and provide banking services. Despite this, in recent years, slowly but surely, they have closed down, leaving many communities without such supports.
Last week, the Government announced funding to support post offices; possibly years too late given the closures, but it might help those who have survived to date.
If we build a hub in Cromane, don’t we need a post office and a school? The same for Ballinskelligs and, of course, the same for the Black Valley.
We also need pubs and community centres in these areas. There’s little point in talking about remote working and living if we don’t have services we need around them.