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200 pupils sent home after education bosses padlock classrooms in 'trespass' row

Siting of school's 18 new mobile units 'was not approved'

By Anna Maguire

Hundreds of pupils were sent home days into a new term after an education board locked them out of their classrooms.

A stalemate over the lease of land housing new mobile classrooms at Hazelwood Integrated College descended into a public dispute yesterday.

In a dramatic announcement shortly before noon, Kathleen Gormley, principal of the north Belfast school, told 199 sixth form pupils they would be sent home after the board padlocked the entrance to the classrooms on Monday.

Ms Gormley described the board's decision as "a bad day for education".

Belfast Education and Library Board owns the land on which the 18 mobile classrooms – including sixth form and alternative education centres, a careers suite, maths and IT classrooms and 1,000 boxes of resources – are located, adjacent to the school. They were funded by the Integrated Education Fund and other bodies.

Ms Gormley said she notified the board of the school's plans for the new classrooms on May 17, but only received a reply last week.

"On Friday we got issued with a letter saying if you go into the site... it would constitute trespassing. We were horrified," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

With the classrooms set to remain padlocked for the coming days, sixth form pupils will start a new year being taught in the school's corridors.

The assembly hall will be revamped into a sixth form centre and staff are reluctantly relocating 65 pupils with special educational needs to make space for the sixth form pupils.

"I was myself in tears this morning," Ms Gormley said yesterday.

"Imagine setting off on a new school year, you are looking through a padlocked fence. I am standing with one of our pupils who has a Ucas form and the careers centre is locked."

A spokesman for the board said the school was informed that the classrooms would not be suitable for use by the beginning of the new school year.

"It was reinforced that the acquisition of the proposed lease needed to be compliant with the board, Department of Education, Belfast City Council building control and Department of the Environment approvals," the spokesman added.

He claimed use of the unapproved buildings could pose a health and safety risk, describing the board's decision as "responsible".

The school's principal has insisted that it received documented approval from all the relevant departments.

Belfast City Council confirmed that the school received approval from its building control department, however the Department of Education said it became aware last week that the units had been moved on to the site and that required approvals were not in place.

As the stalemate entered a third day, politicians called on the Education Minister John O'Dowd (below) to intervene.

North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness said it was an "unacceptable situation".

"I think with a bit of common sense the matter could be resolved very quickly," he said.

The Education Minister called for negotiations to resolve the crisis.

"Our top priority should be the education and welfare of children at the school," he said

In November last year, the head of the north Belfast school made headlines when she vehemently denied referring to pupils as "sluts" and "scruffs" during a school assembly.

Infuriated parents of children at Hazelwood Integrated set up a Facebook page attacking Mrs Gormley – who had taken over as the school's principal just two months earlier.

QUOTE

"I was myself in tears this morning. Imagine setting off on a new school year, you are looking through a padlocked fence. One of our pupils has an Ucas form and the careers centre is locked."

Principal of Hazelwood Integrated College Kathleen Gormley (right)

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