A two-year pilot project to support and save small rural primary schools by encouraging them to work together in "clusters" has been launched by Minister for Education Norma Foley.
The project involves a total of 24 schools in counties Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Wicklow and Waterford, and will begin in the new school term.
Ireland already has the highest proportion of small schools in Europe, defined as a school with four teachers or fewer.
Nearly half (44 per cent) of all primary schools in the State are deemed small but account for less than 15 per cent (14.2 per cent) of all students.
In a bid to support these schools the pilot project will include efforts to share teaching and “common activities”, including special needs education.
The clusters of between three and five schools will also explore “school leadership”, including the potential for a number of schools to operate under the management of one school principal, with provision for “middle leadership teams” across the clusters.
They will also look at how they can best share procurement and costs to maintain IT systems and services.
The pilot project, being developed by a working group of school management bodies and teachers’ unions with the Department of Education, is part of the Primary Education Forum programme. This comprises all primary education partners, including parent representatives, working with the department.
Co Galway will have two clusters, both with five schools. One cluster includes four national schools in the Gort area – in Ballyturn, Rakerin, Lurga and Gort along with Tubber national school in Co Clare.
The second will include five Irish language national schools in the Connemara Gaeltacht areas of Carna and Cill Chiaráin.
Four Co Donegal schools will be involved in Dunfanaghy, Portnablagh, Creeslough and Gartan, along with three schools in Ballinskelligs and Killarney in Co Kerry.
Three schools in Shillelagh, Tinahely and Redcross in Co Wicklow are also participating, along with four schools in Co Waterford in Ballycurrane, Grange, An Chlais Mhór and Gaeltacht school Naomh Parthalan.
Announcing the project, Ms Foley stressed the programme for government commitment to continue “to recognise the importance of small schools to communities across Ireland, and this innovation provides tangible support to that commitment”.
The Minister said small schools “are valued hugely in our communities, and play an important role in community life”.
“This research project will harness some of that energy, and will support schools to collaborate in clusters and identify possible solutions to some of the challenges they face.”
She said “I have no doubt that the schools participating across the six clusters in this project will provide valuable insights and ideas into supports that can be developed and replicated across small schools.”
Ms Foley stressed the “huge potential” identified by teachers themselves and the community for collaboration between schools.
She said the schools were “best placed to know what might and might not work for them. It is not expected that all of the activities tried out will be immediately successful; the aim is to provide an opportunity over a two-year period to experiment safely.”