Rural schools have been under the spotlight recently, with their distance from population centres, falling pupil numbers and shrinking budgets combining to make conditions increasingly unsustainable for many. Despite these challenges, however, one small school in Stewartstown, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland has managed to not just survive in its rural setting but thrive.
Despite having less than 50 pupils on roll, Stewartstown Primary School has gained international acclaim for its excellence in maths, with none of its pupils currently underachieving in the subject following a drive to raise standards. According to the school’s principal, Kendra Bolton, the key to Stewartstown’s success has been to place technology at the heart of learning, while using its rural surroundings to its advantage.
“Our main challenges at Stewartstown Primary School result from budgetary constraints,” she says. “Cuts aren’t an issue for rural primaries alone, but we experience a different range of financial pressures compared to urban schools. Transport, for example, is a huge cost and our low pupil roll directly impacts our funding. Despite having fewer pupils, many of our overheads are the same as those in medium sized schools.”
She continues, “A lack of diversity is another potential challenge. Many of our pupils’ families have always lived locally, meaning there’s a lack of different experiences amongst the children. It can therefore be harder to get them to understand the lives of those elsewhere and raise aspirations.”
Confronted by these multiple challenges, the school found a solution. “Technology allows every child to access the curriculum in a supportive way through different media, allowing learning to be truly personalised,” Bolton says. “It’s an instant motivator, keeping children engaged whilst furthering their knowledge of key concepts. We’re fortunate at Stewartstown to have a full class set of iPads and laptops; when shared between only three classes, every child still has access to a good range of resources.
“Through the online maths resource Mathletics we’ve been able to engage the pupils in activities like the November Numeracy Challenge, which we’ve entered the past two years. Last year we were the worldwide winners and this year placed second worldwide, topping the UK leader boards. Quite a remarkable achievement for such a small school!
“As pupils compete in the Live Mathletics section of the resource against other pupils in real time, they’re able to see where their fellow competitors are located, giving a real sense of excitement to maths and helping them to gain an understanding of other children around the globe learning the same way they are. Pupils can also compete against their own classmates in live, head-on challenges. It can be competitive at times, but very stimulating for the pupils!”