Decision to close schools was ‘balance of competing judgments’

David Sterling answers questions from the media at Stormont
David Sterling answers questions from the media at Stormont

The head of the civil service has responded to claims that it was impractically late in issuing closure guidance to Northern Ireland schools in light of Storm Ophelia.

The advice to NI principals to close their schools on Monday was issued late on Sunday night, meaning that communication between schools and parents was not issued until after midnight in some cases.

As a result, most parents were not aware their children would not be at school the following day when going to bed on Sunday evening.

Greig Savage, principal at Lisnadill Primary School in Co Armagh, said his school sent texts to parents on Sunday night at 11.04pm.

He said: “The Department of Education was correct to make the call to advise all schools to close. Children’s health and safety comes first. However, the timing of their announcement late on Sunday night led to many principals closing schools via texts and emails whilst parents slept.

“I feel sorry for those working parents who would have had last minute child minding arrangements to sort out.”

Kathleen O’Hare, principal of Hazelwood Integrated College in Belfast, told the Press Association when she first learnt of school closures on social media she thought it was a hoax.

Following criticism of the Department of Education for the timing of its advice to schools, head of the civil service David Sterling addressed the media at Stormont on Monday afternoon.

As the trees surrounding Castle Buildings shook under the might of Storm Ophelia, he answered questions from the Province’s reporters.

Asked why the advice had taken so long to be issued, he said: “We have to rely on the best evidence available and we have to balance competing judgments.

“We don’t want to encourage school children to stay at home if there is no particular risk. We took the view last night that it would be prudent and sensible, particularly given the decision taken by the Irish government, that we should close schools.

“We cannot afford to take risks with children’s lives.”

Asked if the lack of ministers at Stormont had hampered the response to the storm, Mr Sterling said: “As head of the civil service we’re pretty keen to get ministers back in place. However, given the situation we’re in now my job is to co-ordinate the efforts of all government departments and agencies so we can provide the best possible service to the people of NI.”

He said he was keeping in close touch with party leaders who are “showing a keen interest in what’s going on”.

It was pointed out to Mr Sterling that the Republic of Ireland had been communicating storm advice to its citizens through the weekend, while many people in NI went to sleep on Sunday night without knowing what to expect.

Mr Sterling responded: “A series of clear messages have gone out to people now.

“These things are never easy when you’re having to take decisions about whether children should go to school or whether people should cancel appointments they’ve been waiting a long, long time for.”