PLANS for Donaghadee’s St Anne’s Primary to become an integrated school have received ‘overwhelming support’ from both parents and the wider local community.

School principal John Hennessy has said the school, which is currently under threat of closure, could become the second Catholic school in Northern Ireland to change to integrated status.

Speaking at a recent meeting of Ards and North Down Council’s Corporate Services Committee, the school head stated there have been 208 formal expressions of support for the change with a further 150 expressions of interest from parents keen to send their children to an integrated primary school. The Donaghadee primary school has submitted a formal case for a change of status to the Education Authority (EA). The process includes a ballot of parents to gauge opinion, with 96% of parents voting in favour of the transformation.

However, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has proposed closing the Donaghadee primary school with the scheduled date for ‘discontinuance’ of August 2022 pushed back to August 2023. In sharp contrast, principal John Hennessy believes the transformation could help boost the school’s current enrolment of 58 pupils to around 130 students by the year 2030, with their aspiration to ‘bring children together for the future of Northern Ireland’.

According to the primary school head, a breakdown of the school’s intake over the past 10 years shows a steady 25% of pupils come from a Protestant tradition, a further 50% come from a Catholic background and the remaining 25% are from other religious backgrounds or none. Mr Hennessey said the school’s integration journey began four years ago, explaining the motivation came as ‘St Anne’s was always cross community with a mix of cultures’ and ‘if we are going to make a really sustainable school we have to formally recognise the integrated nature of the school’.

Mr Hennessy said the level of support for the school’s status change had been ‘overwhelming’ from ‘the community, to public representatives and the business community’. The school principal also took the opportunity to put to rest any misconceptions that the school’s transformation to integrated status would ‘remove funding’ from other local schools. He stated that St Anne’s Primary School was currently funded by the Department for Education and not the church as had been mistakenly suggested by some. Should the school be granted integrated status it would continue to receive department funding. Alderman Stephen McIlveen highlighted the ‘resistance from the bishops’ to the transformation and asked ‘what would you be offering that would be different or is it a change of label?’ Mr Hennessy explained: “We have always been very open to all cultures and religions in our school and would have all the ministers from the churches coming in.” The school has also held Remembrance events as well as embracing GAA visits and the Ulster-Scots tradition.

Said Mr Hennessy: “We try to represent all the families, my goal over the past 20 years has been to represent everyone. What would change is that it would be more formal, we would have formal integration and inclusion.” Mr McIlveen said that St Anne’s would be a ‘very small school’ if it did transform and if it didn’t it would be at risk of closure. Mr Hennessy said the integration bid was the ‘natural progression’ of the school’s quest for sustainability. “We have been there for 90 years and we want to be there for another 90 years but as an integrated primary school’. Independent councillor Tom Smith praised the ‘first class education’ that was offered in Donaghadee thanks to the three local primary schools. He said the loss of St Anne’s would be a ‘huge blow’ to the local community as ‘thousands and thousands of houses are appearing week in and week out’.