Saturday, February 24, 2024

FIGHT TO SAVE ST ANNE’S

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ST ANNE’S Primary School in Donaghadee has secured an eleventh hour stay of execution after the shock news that the school was to close its doors for the last time on August 31.

Parents of children at the school had vowed to fight the closure decision after receiving the devastating news last Thursday.

It is not yet known how long the postponement is due to run, but following a special meeting yesterday between the school head, John Hennessy and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), ‘negotiations [for] a revised proposed date’ were taking place. 

The Millisle Road school had been waiting to find out if its application to transform to integrated status would be successful, only to find out on Thursday that not only is the integrated road not available, the entire school is to close within weeks.

The announcement from the Department of Education sparked further controversy when it emerged the school principal and governors were given just 35 minutes warning before a press statement was issued to the media. As a result teachers and parents found out the school is to close through social media.

In a savage attack on the way the decision was communicated the Board of Governors of St Anne’s have accused the Department and its Permanent Secretary, Dr Mark Browne, of failing to ‘demonstrate any sensitivity to the health and wellbeing of pupils, parents and staff’ by giving so little warning.

The recommendation that the school should close came from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and was backed by the Department.

The school community was aware that St Anne’s was under threat but had hoped that a recent increase in pupils from 50 to 58 would have secured the school some breathing space.

Parents were also confident that number would increase in the very near future, because of the amount of home building already underway in the town with more development on the cards.

They said Donaghadee was ‘the fastest growing’ town in the borough, if not County Down, and was recently named the best place to live in Northern Ireland.

School’s principal, John Hennessy, spoke of the disappointment felt by everyone involved with the school. 

“Clearly, this is a double blow to Donaghadee and its wider community,” he said.

“Firstly, there’s the decision not to approve the school’s bid to transform to integrated education. Despite 137 expressions of support and 118 expressions of interest in attending a local integrated primary school, the Department were not prepared to give our proposal a chance to prove itself,” he said.

“Secondly, the Department has agreed not only to deny parents the possibility of local integrated education, but also the removal of the only local faith school, leaving parents the unenviable option of a return-journey of up to 16 miles to Newtownards or Bangor if they wish to continue their child’s faith education.” 

“The Board of Governors at St. Anne’s is grateful for the support of its local MP, MLAs and councillors, as well as the hundreds of supportive messages from members of the public,” said Mr Hennessy.

“We are determined not to simply accept these damaging decisions, and are exploring every avenue to ensure that St. Anne’s Primary School remains open in Donaghadee.”

Mothers and fathers reiterated Mr Hennessy’s determination to fight the decision and are now hoping for a year-long stay of execution until August 2024 to mount their fight to keep St Anne’s doors open. 

They have pledged to make use of ‘the full legal system’ to seek an extension to the closure date so ‘hopefully when the Assembly gets back to business in September’ the decision could be overturned. 

The decision has been described as ‘short-sighted’, with parents believing it will come back to ‘bite’ school authorities considering the expected growth of the town.

If integration had been approved,the school had been looking towards future growth; it would have paved the way for the school to employ a fourth teacher in the school year commencing 2024, under the school’s financial plan.

It was also considering ‘pupil enrolment increases’, which could have meant ‘an additional modular classroom would be required by 2024/25’, worth in the region of £200k. 

Parents had voted between November and December 2021 in favour of becoming integrated with 96% of the 82% turnout voting to join the integrated movement.

The CCMS said it had ‘engaged’ with the school on its future in 2020 and 2021. “During this time, the Board of Governors was provided with information on a range of options to consider in relation to sustainable education provision in the area. CCMS will work with the school leadership and community to support them during the implementation of the decision,” a spokeswoman for the CCMS said.

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