ST ANNE’S Primary School in Donaghadee has been left ‘devastated’ after losing its bid to reverse the Department of Education’s decision to close it for good.
The ‘heartbreaking’ news brings to a close a spirited campaign by school staff, parents and local political representatives to save it from closure for the last time at the end of this month.
The news means four teaching staff, including principal John Hennessy, and five non-teaching staff, face redundancy.
The school family and supporters had hoped the High Court would intervene by supporting its contention that the Department of Education had failed to properly consult with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education prior to making its decision last June to deny it integrated status, thus closing it on the grounds of historic low enrolment.
But after considering an application for a Judicial Review into the contentious decision, it was rejected by Mr Justice David Scoffield, who expressed doubt that the requisite consultation would have altered the outcome.
Following a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, on September 29, the judge issued his reasons.
“I have been persuaded… that this is one of the rare cases where the court can conclude with the requisite confidence that compliance with the consultation duty would not have altered the outcome,” he said.
“In the end, the difficulties with the school’s future sustainability posed by the low enrolment numbers and the Department’s assessment of the forecast future enrolment numbers were simply too great, notwithstanding the obligation to support the development of integrated education.”
Setting out his rationale for rejecting the child applicant’s appeal in a 28-page report, the judge did however attach some merit to the school’s claim that the Department had not fully consulted with relevant parties.
“I do consider there to be potential merit in his [the child applicant] criticism of the Department’s failure to engage directly with NICIE and/or IEF in the course of its decision-making under section 3 of the 2022 Act.”
Justice Scofield highlighted the way the closure decision was communicated to the school, parents and staff.
The judgement noted that it was ‘clear’ from ‘correspondence between the Chair of the Board of Governors and the Permanent Secretary, that the communication of the impugned decisions in this case left much to be desired.
“The school governors were informed only very shortly before the Department’s decision was made public by way of press release,” the judge stated.
“It is the position that these decisions were communicated very shortly before the end of the year which is also far from ideal.”
Mr Justice Scoffield, did point out, though, the Permanent Secretary, Dr Mark Browne’s ‘sincere apologies for the hurt and anxiety which may have resulted from this’.
Speaking after the judgement Mr Hennessy said that following the campaign – including petitions which drew more than 3000 signatures of support – and a cross-community effort by local political representatives, the fight was now over.
“Sadly, this means that St. Anne’s Primary School will officially close on October 31, but the pupils’ last day will be on Friday, October 20,” he said.
The chairwoman of the school’s Board of Governors, councillor Gillian McCollum, said members were ‘devastated’ by the decision.
Ms McCollum, who attended the High Court Judicial Review application hearing alongside Mr Hennessy, said the wider school family was also ‘heartbroken’.
“The Board of Governors of St Anne’s Primary is devastated at the decision of the High Court to refuse leave to judicially review the Department of Education’s recent decisions to deny integrated status and close the school,” she said.
”We are heartbroken for the parents who have fought so valiantly to save the school, for the staff who dedicated themselves to the children and for the community of Donaghadee which has lost a very special place in its culture and heritage.”
The immediate future, she said, would be to assist pupils and staff on their next steps.
“While we grieve this sad news, our focus is now on ensuring a smooth transition for our remaining pupils to other schools, supporting our staff through their redundancy and taking time to celebrate all that the school has achieved in its remarkable 91 years at the heart of this community. “
She added her thanks to the community who rallied round the school.
“We are extremely grateful to the local businesses, community groups, elected representatives and our own families for the commitment they have shown to St Anne’s during this challenging time.”
Mrs McCollum concluded that despite the blow, St Anne’s had been heartened by the community’s response.
“The outpouring of sympathy we have received is extremely touching and a source of great comfort.”