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The Future Schools Project is running from April 2021 to September 2022 and has been undertaken by the research team at Ulster University with the support of funding partner, the Integrated Education Fund. The Project is funded by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland through their Civic Innovation Programme.

The CFNI Civic Innovation Programme supports “innovative ideas that put people at the centre of decision-making in Northern Ireland.”

Project Aims

The aims of Future Schools Project are to support school communities who wish to explore whether there might be a more sustainable solution to primary school provision in their geographic area and provide guidance on how they could move forward with this in practice. This is a particular problem in Northern Ireland where a divided system of education has led to duplication of provision in some areas.

The Project is therefore designed to enable parents and communities to envision and articulate the kind of primary school provision in their area that would offer greatest viability, sustainability and quality of education for children and young people, and support school leadership in their engagement with the Area Planning process.

“The education system has a diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and values. However it is not sustainable.”

(New Decade, New Approach Agreement, UK and Irish Governments, January 2020)

“It is essential that schooling reflects the educational needs of the pupils and addresses these needs in the most efficient and effective way possible. This can best be achieved through a network of viable and sustainable schools that are of the right type, the right size, located in the right place at the right time and have a focus on raising standards.”

Department of Education NI, Area Planning Guidance for 2022-2027)

Over the course of the Project regular meetings were held with the relevant education stakeholders involved in Area Planning, data was gathered from parents through Community Conversations and a NI-wide parent survey, a NI-wide survey of school governors was undertaken, and a draft of the Toolkit was shared with a number of Principals, Governors and stakeholder organisations for feedback.

Future Schools Toolkit

The Future Schools Toolkit that was developed as part of this Project aims to:

  • provide support and guidance that will enable schools and the communities within which they are located to undertake self-evaluation in relation to school sustainability using the Department of Education NI Sustainable Schools criteria and indicators;
  • provide guidance in using the Community Conversation methodology to engage communities in a shared exploration about the way forward; and
  • set out the pathways and processes involved in Area Planning in order to support school communities to work with the managing authorities towards a realistic, sustainable solution to enable ongoing school provision in the area.

The Toolkit was officially launched at Stormont on 27 May 2022.

If, at some stage, there are pressures on keeping both schools sustainable we need to work together to keep the best of what we’ve got – we need to make decisions about what we want before we are told what is going to be happening.

(Parent participant in the Future Schools Project)

The toolkit can encourage communities to be proactive in determining their own future. It also provides opportunities for cross sectoral discussions on school provision in particular areas.

(Primary School Principal providing feedback on the Future Schools Toolkit)

It allows everyone to examine options that will benefit communities longer term.

(School Governor providing feedback on the Future Schools Toolkit)

Short video guide to the Future Schools Toolkit

Download the Future Schools Toolkit


  • Department of Education

    “The Department of Education has been engaged with the Future Schools Project Team throughout the period of the project as the work being undertaken by them aligns well with the direction of travel for Area Planning.

    As part of the continuous development and evolution of the Area Planning process, the Department is considering ways to increase and enhance the involvement of schools and communities in local area planning.

    In particular, it is seeking to develop processes that achieve much earlier and more proactive engagement with schools and communities to ascertain their views on the future shape of education provision to ensure sustainable education provision is the norm for all children.

    The work of this project will assist with those considerations.

    (Director, Sustainable Schools Policy & Planning, Department of Education)

  • Education Authority

    The Education Authority is pleased to have worked in partnership again with the Ulster University team from the UNESCO Centre, School of Education, in the development of the Guture Schools Toolkit.

    The Education Authority fully supports the Toolkit's intention to support school leadership to engage at an early stage and critically examine the sustainability of their school while engaging with local communities on the type of school provision that will provide a sustainable, high-quality educational experience for the future.

    In doing so, the Education Authority believes that the Toolkit will further aid communities to meaningfully engage with educational planning, and Area Planning in particular, to identify sustainable area-based solutions that best meet the needs of children and young people in their area.

    (Michael McConkey, Head of Area Planning, School Development Service, Education Authority)

  • Council for Catholic Maintained Schools

    The Council for the Catholic Maintained Schools welcomed the opportunity to engage with the Ulster University, School of Education, Future Schools' Project Team in their development of a resource to support school leaders and governors in the process of self-evaluating and assessing the sustainability of their school.

    The Future Schools Toolkit will encourage earlier school and community engagement in the area planning process with a focus on an area-based approach to sustainable, high quality educational provision.”

    (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools)

Additional resources

Community Foundation for NI video about the Future Schools Project

BERA Public Engagement and Impact Award Winners

The UU Future Schools research team won the 2022 British Educational Research Association (BERA) Public Engagement and Impact Team Award for the Future Schools project.

Other Resources


Bates, J., & O'Connor, U. (2018). A Community Conversation Toolkit. UNESCO Centre, Ulster University. Funded by the Integrated Education Fund.

Bates, J., & O'Connor, U. (2021). Community Conversations: deliberative democracy, education provision and divided societies. SN Social Sciences, 1(45).

Roulston, S. & Cook, S. (2021) Isolated together: Proximal pairs of primary schools duplicating provision in Northern Ireland. British Journal of Educational Studies, 69 (2), 155-174.

Roulston, S; O’Connor Bones, U; McAuley, C & Bates, J (2022) Schools for the Future in Rural Communities, Rural Community Network Blog, 6 October 2022.

Bates, J; O’connor Bones, U & Roulston, S (2022) A closer look at the Future Schools Toolkit. Brirish Educational Research Association (BERA) Blog. Blog series: Education Research: Northrern Ireland, 7 October 2022.

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