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Why did a south Dublin institution, Newpark Academy of Music, announce it was closing suddenly?

Staff and students confused and surprised at board’s abrupt decision

Parents and teachers have come together to fight the sudden closure of the Newpark Academy of Music in Blackrock. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

Looking at its website earlier this week, you’d never know what was going on in Newpark Academy of Music (NAM), apparently bursting with classes and activities in full flow.

On May 22nd NAM’s board announced the 45-year-old music school in Blackrock, Co Dublin, highly regarded in music education, was to cease operations – in just 10 days’ time, on June 1st.

Executive director Hilda Chan was coming to the end of her maternity leave when she learned this, an hour before the NAM board notified parents and patrons that “after a period of considered reflection and evaluation, informed by financial, accounting and legal advice” it had decided to cease trading and close the music school at the end of the academic year. The decision “was not made lightly and was taken with sincere regret”. The board expressed “heartfelt appreciation for your understanding and support during this challenging time”. In musical terms, a caesura, a sudden stop.

A follow-up message from the board on June 5th said the academy had been recording operating losses and struggling with significant financial issues for a long time. While finances temporarily improved over Covid due to Government subsidies, it said, “in the long term the business is not sustainable. Ceasing trading now allows for an orderly wind-down” so staff, teachers and students could “make alternative arrangements” over the summer.


This was a shock for NAM’s 600-plus students and 42 (mainly part-time) staff. Chan says the board advised the school in February to pause new enrolments but there was no discussion about any financial challenges or possible actions, she told a well attended meeting of stakeholders and local and national politicians on June 11th in Newtownpark Pastoral Centre.

Founded in 1979, the music school was based in Melfield House, dating from the 1790s and on the campus of Newpark Comprehensive School in Blackrock. The NAM board comprises four: Eoin Norton (Newpark Comprehensive principal), Jonathan Chawke (former parent nominee on the Comprehensive’s board), Amy Morrison (former music teacher at the Comprehensive) and lawyer Sinéad Gleeson.

Particularly renowned for its jazz education and ensembles, NAM offered individual and group classes from early years through childhood and teens to adults, and hosted several ensembles as well as regular performance, residencies, a music festival, outreach including a musical memory choir for those with dementia. Over 45 years thousands learned music there with former students including Hozier, singers Aoife Doyle and Lauren Kinsella, drummers Rory Doyle and Sean Carpio. In 2017 NAM’s jazz degree course transferred to Dublin City University.

Chan mentioned NAM’s “strong standing within the community. Generations have passed through the door, lots of teachers and lots of families”. Deborah Kelleher, director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) talked about the benefits of a music school community and pointed out there are few schools with 600 students; if the school closes, “half of them will give up”.

Following the sudden announcement, an impressive, organised campaign has begun. A Save Newpark Music Working Group has many musical heavy-hitters and includes Chan, RIAM’s Kelleher, conductor David Brophy, communications consultant Catherine Griffin, Kevin Brady (head of NAM’s jazz department and professional drummer), former NCH director Judith Woodworth, Des Crowther (an adult NAM student with non-profit expertise), NAM staff member Alyssa Filardo and Anne Woodworth, a founder member of NAM staff. Anne Woodworth recalls similar events about 20 years ago, when she headed Waterford Institute of Technology’s music school; a decision to shut Waterford came “without warning or discussion” and “after a huge public campaign, backed by musicians and educators from all over the country. Management had to back down and the school is still thriving”. She asks: “Why did the board of NAM think that parents and friends of 600 students and 42 staff members would meekly fold their hands and disappear?”

(From left) Student Des Crowther; head of jazz department Kevin Brady; communications consultant Catherine Griffin, parent of students; Newpark Music Academy's executive director Hilda Chan; Royal Irish Academy Music director Deborah Kelleher, and conductor David Brophy, parent of a student. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

Questions arose about the licence for the building; it emerged the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment didn’t receive legally-required notice of redundancy and the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has become involved.

There’s a petition, an email campaign, messages of support from music schools internationally. Lawyers Arthur Cox got involved pro-bono, “to try to get the board of directors to meet and talk to us, because there are options to continue this organisation”, says Chan. People Before Profit-Solidarity TD Richard Boyd Barrett in the Dáil called on Minister for Education Norma Foley to intervene; standing in for her, Minister of State James Browne said NAM was a “privately-owned” academy and outside the department’s remit. (“A shocking response” of “pass the buck”, said Boyd Barrett). NAM is a registered charity run on a not-for-profit basis.

In the Seanad, Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward said “the lease is owned by the Department of Education” and “only the department can take away that lease”. He said the department “must step in to safeguard this school” and referenced the high-profile musicians it produced.

The school and the music centre are entwined in various ways. There’s a long-standing scheme where the school’s students can sign up for music academy lessons for reduced rates.

The Department of Education owns the entire Newpark campus, including Melfield House, where NAM has been based since 1989 under a licence granted by Newpark Comprehensive. That licence can only be terminated by Newpark Comprehensive with the prior consent of the Minister, and only after NAM has had nine months to find an alternative location. It appears the licence agreement was not terminated with the consent of the Minister, so NAM is entitled to occupy Melfield for the rest of the licence period. On the other hand, what happens to the notice period if NAM has been rapidly wound up and doesn’t exist?

Under the licence no rent applies but 5 per cent of surplus was due, but NAM was rarely in surplus and the school made no demands regarding it; NAM is responsible for maintenance of Melfield House, which was kept in good decorative condition but the roof, plumbing, heating and insulation needed work.

Next to Melfield on the campus, Newpark Comprehensive moved into its badly needed, newly built and well equipped school in December 2016.

The Comprehensive’s board of management had a scheduled meeting on Wednesday. In response to queries about whether the music academy or its plans for Melfield House were on the agenda, the board said it could not comment on board discussions, and that an agreed report on proceedings will be published online.

We sought to speak to NAM’s board, which sent a statement via a communications agency, referring again to “significant financial issues for a very long time”, “operating losses for many years” and that despite temporary improvements from Covid subsidies “in the long term the business is not sustainable”. The statement to The Irish Times added the information that it had “carefully considered several alternatives so that they could keep the academy open, however none of these have a realistic prospect of success”. The NAM website is no longer active.

From her point of view, executive director Chan says enrolments were increasing, and “that’s really saying we are viable business. There are students coming through the door, more courses and increasing numbers. I believe the financial is stable”.

‘Staff are in shock’: Newpark Academy of Music in south Dublin to closeOpens in new window ]

RIAM’s Kelleher, with considerable experience in running a music school, says: “[it’s] a not-for-profit charity. This is never going to be a highly profitable institution. There’s going to be years, and I know it myself, where you will have profits, then you will have losses. Things will go against you, and things will go for you. But overall, a going concern has a level, a standard it has to reach before you can say something isn’t a going concern.” The last published accounts, for 2022, “indicate it is a going concern. We await with interest what the rationale is” for closing and “how the picture might have changed so catastrophically to turn it from one to the other”. There’s still a question mark about finances, she said, but “the direction of travel indicates there isn’t anything really game-changing in the last year. We can’t be certain of that yet, but boy, would we like to get our hands on that information to find out. Because that’s the base at which you recover things, and understand what levers you have to pull in order to make it stable again.”

Newpark Academy of Music closure: Department accused of taking ‘pass the buck’ viewOpens in new window ]

The 2022 accounts show a deficit of €31,972, which was transferred to reserves (2021 had a surplus of €206,702), with the directors “satisfied with the company financial position and reserves at the year end”. In July 2022 the company had gross assets of €317,787 (2021: €273,906), gross liabilities of €199,965 (2021: €124,112) and net assets of €117,822 (2021: net liabilities €149,794).

The Department of Education owns the entire Newpark campus, including Melfield House where the music academy has been based since 1989. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

Audited accounts for 2023 have not yet been filed, and would presumably shed light on the decision to shut, allowing stakeholders to assess if closure was justified. The deadline for filing 2023 accounts is June 26th. A meeting of the members and creditors of Newpark Music Centre Company had been scheduled for June 24th, two days before that. (There’s no obligation on a company in liquidation to file accounts.) But on Wednesday this week NAM staff were informed that meeting was cancelled, which campaigners have interpreted as a positive sign.

Aside from these questions about the transparency of the decision to wind up, there seems to be a lack of engagement about any financial challenges facing NAM, judging from the public meeting. While the board said it considered several alternatives to keep NAM open, it does not appear to have discussed these with the director or staff. This contrasts with how an earlier cash flow crisis was handled.

Kevin Brady has taught drums at NAM for more than 20 years and recalls in mid-2019 that “staff were informed by the board in place at that time that they were addressing a considerable cash flow issue, which the board felt threatened the academy’s future. The difference then was that the board called a meeting of staff to tell them exactly what the problems were and their concerns about a possible need for closure. It was a very difficult meeting for staff but through dialogue with that board and the considerable efforts of many members of staff at the time, the cash flow issues were resolved and music lessons were able to resume. We were able to find a way forward then.”

Today, Kelleher says there’s “a little bit of confusion, and quite a lot of distress for people who are at risk of losing their livelihood”. Legislation requires employers to notify the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment about impending redundancies at least 30 days before the first dismissal, and also mandates at least 30 days consultation with staff. The Irish Times has seen a May 29th letter from the department stating the Minister had not received notification of collective redundancy.

Minister for Education urged to save music school in BlackrockOpens in new window ]

A HR specialist has since become involved, and there is post-facto consultation, but staff went to the WRC, which is now inspecting an alleged contravention of the Protection of Employment Act 1977.

In a statement issued on Thursday, June 27th, the board said it had “fulfilled all of its legal obligations with regard to the closure of Newpark Academy of Music, including notice of redundancy”. It added that the Academy “is currently in a period of information and consultation with staff in relation to the planned redundancies. This includes direct engagement with the nominated staff representative and individual meetings with staff members to discuss and assist with any concerns regarding the process, where they so wish.” *

The working group would like a shared solution with the board. At the public meeting the steering group asked students and parents to hold off on making alternative plans for music lessons. “Our goal is for the school to be open for business as usual in the current location in September,” says Chan, adding they want to work with local politicians and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown council with that in mind.

The working group said it was delighted with the response at its public meeting. “Whatever challenges lie in the past, our goal is to keep this wonderful music school open and we remain confident that we will find solutions. Newpark Academy of Music provides valuable access to music education. It is one of the only large music schools where no audition is necessary. In a recent video submission for the campaign, musician Aoife Doyle referenced how the school provides local access to world-class tuition. Keeping Newpark Academy of Music open ensures many more children and young people will have the opportunity to develop their talents and the Working Group works for those future musicians.”

Kelleher told the meeting: “The small board have made the catastrophic decision to shut the school down. We’re minded to think the school doesn’t need to shut and we’d love to open dialogue to ensure it stays open. That’s the goal. We like the cards we’ve been dealt. But we have a bit of work to do to get there.”

* This article was amended on Friday, June 28th, 2024, to include a statement made by the Board of the Newpark Academy of Music following publication in which it said that it had fulfilled all of its legal obligations, including notice of redundancy

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times