St Patrick's Primary: Headteacher Anne O'Donnell retires after a lifetime spent at Denny school

A much-loved headteacher has retired after a remarkable lifetime of involvement in the same school.

Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 10:34 am

Anne O’Donnell was a pupil at St Patrick’s Primary in Denny, before returning as a newly qualified teacher 43 years ago and for nearly two decades she has been the head.

In an emotional farewell at the end-of-term she was surprised with a special presentation where her young charges sang a song specially written for the occasion, before she was given a guard of honour from pupils as she left the building in Carronbank Crescent. There she was greeted by parents, many of whom she had taught during her time at the school.

Anne said: “It was a complete surprise, but a lovely one. I was also presented with a framed picture where all the pupils had added a fingerprint, as well as another frame with the words of the song.

Anne O'Donnell, headteacher of St Patrick's Primary in Denny, where she was a pupil and then a teacher for 43 years, the last 18 years as Headteacher

"There were also so many kind gifts, flowers and cards. It was very emotional.”

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Her family’s links with the affectionally known St Pat’s run deep: she was one of 11 sons and daughters of Margaret and Roger McPeake to attend the school, while her aunt, Nan Lopinski, was her teacher for those first two years at the school.

"I loved primary school but wasn’t so happy when it was time to go to St Modan’s High School in Stirling. I think it was feeling part of a small community, whereas at the high school there were so many pupils that you almost felt lost in the crowd,” admitted Anne.

Anne O'Donnell with the pupils of St Patrick's Primary in Denny

The only job she ever wanted to do was teach and after training at Craiglockhart College in Edinburgh it was time to find a post.

"I remember going for the interview at Viewforth in Stirling as we were part of Central Region at that time. When I was given a job it was at St Pat’s and I was happy to go back.

"But I must admit that it was a bit strange to go into the staff room and some of the other teachers had taught me when I was at the school. Once I started that was it and I ended up staying."

However, she confesses that her decision to remain at the school, which currently has a role of around 280 pupils, was never a conscious one.

Pupils at St Patrick's Primary performed a song specially written for headteacher Anne O'Donnell's retiral

"It wasn’t a plan. A lot of teachers nowadays have career paths but that wasn’t me. When the headteacher was retiring 19 years ago I was encouraged to go for the role. At that time I was the assistant head but the then depute head didn’t want to go for it and they both encouraged me. So I applied and was successful."

One of her first decisions was to ask the children to come up with a new motto for the school rather than the Latin motto on their badge.

She was delighted with the one selected – One Big Family, One Big School, saying it sums up the whole ethos of the school as the families have such an important role to play in the children’s education.

Anne O'Donnell speaking to pupils at St Patrick's Primary for the final time prior to her retiral

After over four decades on the teaching staff, Anne admitted that she has an abundance of memories from her time in the classroom.

"There are almost too many but I do remember in 2010 when we had the really heavy snow and the school’s boiler burst. We were closed for several weeks and the pupils were sent to different schools. I used to spend my days in the car going round Denny, Bankier, Nethermains and Kinnaird primary schools making sure everyone was okay.”

She also had proud memories of the school celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2011. The year that the school opened in 1861 also marked the start of the America Civil War and a Denny family with connections in the United States were in touch with a US Senator who arranged for an American stars and stripes flag to be sent to the school as a gift.

Anne added: “It had flown over the Capitol building in Washington DC for one day before being presented to our school. I’ve always wanted to go and see where it had flown so that is definitely part of my retirement plans.”

Married to Peter, the couple were both in the same year group at St Pat’s although he was in a different class and their two children, Michael and Karyn, now grown up also went to the Denny school.

Karyn followed in her mother’s footsteps and is a teacher at St Andrew’s Primary in Falkirk. Education seems to be in this family’s genes with her nephew the headteacher at St Mary’s Primary in Bo’ness and two nieces also teachers, one at St Mungo’s High in Falkirk and the other at St Mary’s Primary in Stirling.

Reflecting on the changes in the classroom over her career, Anne said that particularly for headteachers there is a lot more paperwork with the increase in admin significant.

"But I think like so many things education goes in circles. Much of what the teachers are doing nowadays I was doing when I started out in the classroom.

"We’ve had 5-14 which was much more prescriptive but now with curriculum for excellence it’s bringing back teacher ownership and creativity. Everything seems to be in cycles.”

Along with her trip to the United States next year, Anne is looking forward to spending time in her garden, but she admits that if she ever misses her young charges too much then she will be able to stand at the door and listen to them in the playground as her home is not far from the school.

"It will be strange not be going back in August and I’ve been putting off retirement for a while, but I’ve loved very minute at St Pat’s and leave with lots of happy memories of the wonderful people I’ve worked with and the children.”