Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 1st March 2021 Mark Browne Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Top civil servant says decision ‘fell short’ of standards


Schools boss apologises to St Anne’s



By Lesley Walsh



NORTHERN Ireland’s top boss in the Department of Education has apologised to St Anne’s Primary School for giving school governors and its principal just 35 minutes notice that the school was to close before going public with the news.

Permanent Secretary Dr Mark Browne has written to the chairwoman of the school’s Board of Governors, Gillian McCollum, to say sorry for his department’s handling of the bombshell news.

The short notice meant that staff and parents learned of the decision on social media, following the issuing of a Departmental press release.

Dr Browne’s department had revealed on Thursday, June 8, that the school was to close on August 31, at the same time the school learned its bid for integrated status was also turned down, at the behest of the Council for the Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

In response, governors issued a blistering rebuke, stating the decision failed to ‘demonstrate any sensitivity to the health and wellbeing of pupils, parents and staff’ by giving so little warning.  

In the aftermath of the news, school principal John Hennessy held urgent meetings with the CCMS to appeal for a 12 month stay of execution to prove the school’s future viability, but the Catholic school authority refused, agreeing instead to extend the closure date to October 31.

Just over a week later, on June 16, the Permanent Secretary stressed in his letter of apology that ‘due process’ had been followed in the relaying of such news ‘in advance of the wider communication to the press’, but he did however concede ’it is clear that on this occasion our arrangements fell short of what we would wish’. 

Confirming the Department’s acceptance of the autumn extension, Dr Browne said in his letter to Mrs McCollum: “I would like to emphasise that due process was followed by Departmental officials in notifying the decisions of both Development Proposals (DPs) DP 673 (closure) and DP 683 (transformation) to the relevant proposers and yourself as Chair of the Board of Governors by telephone. This is established practice and was undertaken and completed in advance of the wider communication to the press. 

“However, I fully recognise that while each decision was conveyed to you in advance of the press release being issued, insufficient time was made available for you to communicate the decisions in an appropriate way to the school principal and thereafter to staff, parents and the wider community,” added the letter.

“It is clear that on this occasion our arrangements fell short of what we would wish, and the school community would rightly expect, and I wish to express my sincerest apologies for the hurt and anxiety you have suffered as a consequence. 

“I have also written to Mr Hennessy in similar terms, and I would hope that my apologies can now be shared more widely with staff and the school community.”

Dr Browne’s letter acknowledged the news was upsetting to all those involved. 

“I fully appreciate that the decisions themselves are not what the school community would have hoped for. I am also aware that the closure of any school is very emotive, and these are difficult decisions to take.

“Each proposal requires very careful consideration, and I would stress that decisions are taken in the best educational interests of the children.

“Once again, my most sincere apologies for the hurt and anxiety that the inadequate timing of wider communications has caused and I can assure you that we as a department will reflect on our arrangements in communicating decisions of this nature to ensure that this does not recur in the future.”

North Down MLA Alex Easton has welcomed the apology, but called for the Department to give St Anne’s ‘the space and time they have requested and postpone the closure for this incoming term’.

“I am glad that the Permanent Secretary has seen fit to apologise to the staff of St Anne’s about the handling of the proposed closure of St Anne’s which has been so badly handled that it had left staff, pupils and parents totally devastated.

“I can only hope that the Education Department has learnt lessons and that steps are put in place to ensure this sort of insensitive handling does not happen again,” he said.