A heartbroken mother of three young children, who all attend a Co Armagh primary school set to be closed permanently this summer, says she just doesn’t how to break the “devastating” news to them.
Beckkah Riddle Galbraith’s three children, Emily (10), Bailey (7) and Maisie (6), attend Kingsmills Primary School.
But that is all set to change following the Department of Education’s decision, earlier this week, to permanently close the south Armagh school because to falling number of pupils and a rising financial deficit.
The move, described as “ripping the heart out of the community” has left residents, children, staff and parents reeling.
Beckkah, who was one of the many who fiercely contested the proposal to shut the school, said that in recent weeks she held on to some hope the outcome would be positive.
“I thought no news was good news,” she told Armagh I. “I thought, ‘right, it’s been over a month now from their deadline so they’re bound to come back with good news’ but when I got that email on Monday it was a big blow; it just just felt like somebody was dropping something on my head.
“My thought process just went straight to panic and worry and I know every parent was the same.”
Understandably, Beckkah’s main concerns are for her three children, in particular her son, Bailey, who has autism.
“His understanding is very limited, so he could be three months into a new school before he actually twigs on that this is his new school now, that Mrs Scroggie isn’t there anymore; it’s going to be a long year now for all of us.
“I don’t know whether he will thrive in another school; maybe he’s going to hate it and not want to go and that’s a worry because he loves school and at the minute it’s great knowing that he loves going.
“Unfortunately, he’ll have to be weaned into another school now because it’s going to be such a change in his routine. He’s going to maybe only go back two days a week for the first term. He’s not going to benefit, going from five days a week, to two. Not at all. And he’s not going to benefit from seeing his sisters going into school and himself in the car, coming back home with me.”
Beckkah’s eldest, Emily, will have one more year in primary school left and the thought of two upheavals – with a move to secondary school the following year – in quick succession is another huge worry.
“I haven’t spoke to Emily yet, she doesn’t know. I was going to speak to her this morning and then I chickened out. I will probably have to speak to her at some point today. I know that she knows something is going on.
“I know other parents would have told their children and it will be the talk in the school tomorrow (Thursday) among the kids.”
She added: “Whenever she found out the school might close she was devastated.”
“This is such a big thing for children’s mental health and I wrote that in my letter to the Education Authority. Parents are losing their children to depression. I don’t think the Education Authority, or anybody else making this decision, has taken that into consideration.
“I would never want my children to worry but I know that this is something that I can’t protect them from. I know us as parents, we adapt to things and we can cope better, but children, they don’t; sometimes they don’t say anything and suffer in silence.”
While the negative news was something Beckkah had prepared for in the back of her mind, the timing of the announcement has been nothing short of a disgrace, with just weeks remaining of the school year.
“They should have let us know this decision before Christmas; 5-6 weeks notice just isn’t enough. We have to start putting down preferences for a new school but how do you do that on the back of this news so soon? I don’t have any other preferences; I wanted Kingsmills for my children. I don’t know what to do now.”
While the school comes to terms with its pending fate, Beckkah says the decision to close it will send shockwaves through the community.
“It’s not just a school that’s worrying,” she said. “The church is now worrying that people attending will go down. The shop close by is worried that parents aren’t going to be driving past and stopping for their bread, or anything. It’s not just us that’s worrying, it’s the whole community that is worried.
“It will rip the heart right out of the community. Some of the staff there went to Kingsmills as children, and their children went, and now their grandchildren go. It’s going to very hard for everybody.”
The last days of term will be particularly tough.
“They’ll be awful. Every summer we have a family barbecue at Kingsmills. They call it family barbecue because everybody’s so close and everybody brings something along. I’m hoping it still goes ahead this year but it could be the last one, which is awful – absolutely awful.
“Anybody can go to the barbecue; grandparents, like my mum always comes with me and the kids, and my mum didn’t attend this school and she absolutely loves it. Everyone is always welcomed; farmers close by can call in for a burger – it’s a proper community, something like you’d see in the movies.”
While the flicker of the candle on the battle to save the school appears to have extinguished, Beckkah and a cohort of parents and staff will continue to fight to the bitter end in the hope that there will be some light at the end of the tunnel.
“I would squat in the school if I thought it would make any difference. I would just sleep there. We are going to contact all the politicians to see if we can all come together and do something. It didn’t take them that long to make their decision to close it, so it can’t take them that long to reverse it. Whether they will is another story.
“You just know they will never put their own kids through this but they’re alright to put ours through it because they don’t have to look us in the eyes and they don’t have to look at the kids.
“Why can’t they tell our children why they made the decision they did and explain it to them because it’s not fair us parents having to do it.
“We did ask that they come in person for a meeting during this process and were told no, that it had to be through Zoom. So it wasn’t like we were hiding away, it was like they’re hiding away. It’s just very sad. And it’s just going to be no sleep from this point onwards. I dread September coming, absolutely dread it. I know all the parents are the same.”
Ulster Unionist Councillor David Taylor, who is also a member of the school’s Board of Governors, said: ”
“The decision taken by the Department of Education can only be described as ill-conceived and will serve to rip the heart out of the local community. It is all the more frustrating that this decision has been taken by officials with no accountability who have shown no empathy or understanding of the unique circumstances and importance attached to retaining small rural schools such as Kingsmills. It is surely no coincidence that this decision has been taken at a time of political paralysis.
He added: “I have been proud to serve as a member of the Board of Governors of Kingsmills Primary School in recent years and I am acutely aware of how much Kingsmills means to the staff, parents and pupils associated with the school. This is a severe blow to them all and my main focus of concern is with them in particular as the processes of redeploying staff and the transfer of children to alternative schools now proceeds.
“Kingsmills Primary School has been an integral part of the local area for many generations. The school has provided local children with an excellent standard of education throughout this time and has always been held in the highest regard by the community. To see the Department of Education proceed with the decision to close a school of this quality is hard to comprehend.
“I have stated previously that on too many occasions the status of rural schools is seen as an easy target within the education sector as a means of making cost savings. The reality is however that closing a smaller rural school leads to little or no cost efficiencies.
“There is also a significant issue regarding the subject of rural proofing – including considerations such as the impact which a school closure would have on the wider rural community in the area. This has obviously not been given any consideration by the Department of Education in respect of their decision pertaining to Kingsmills Primary School.
“Everyone associated with Kingsmills Primary School has fought so hard in recent months to save the school and the outcome announced will be devastating for all who contributed to the campaign.
“I genuinely fear about the impact this decision will have on the local minority Protestant community where the effect of this decision will be felt most. Unfortunately, the Department of Education does not appear to have reflected on this at all when proceeding with the closure of Kingsmills Primary School.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “The Department is aware of the strength of support for Kingsmills Primary School and the important role it has played in the local community.
“However, Kingsmills Primary School is not sustainable. Compared to the sustainable schools policy minimum threshold of 105 for a rural school, enrolment at Kingsmills PS has fallen to 24, with no applications to P1 for the next academic year. There are also a number of alternative controlled primary schools in the area with available places.
“The Education Authority will ensure that the children remaining at the school, and their families, are supported through the transition to other schools in the area. Every effort will be made to minimise the disruption to their educational experience and support, care and attention will be given to the teaching and non-teaching staff who are impacted by the closure.”