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How a gas fitter took centre stage in the row over pupils padlocked out of classrooms

By Anna Maguire

Pupils have been locked out of their classrooms for three weeks simply because a gas installer could not access the site to make a safety check, it has been claimed.

An agreement between Hazelwood Integrated College and Belfast Education and Library Board was reached yesterday, bringing the end in sight to a dispute that has seen pupils of the north Belfast school locked out of mobile classrooms.

In a joint statement issued after a meeting yesterday morning, the school, education board and Department of Education confirmed classrooms could be opened by Monday week – nearly a month after the site was padlocked.

The mobile structure – which brings together 14 classrooms, comprising sixth form and alternative education centres and the maths department – was padlocked by Belfast Education and Library Board on September 2, hours before pupils were due to return for the new school year.

On September 3 the school's principal Kathleen Gormley sent 199 sixth form pupils home early after staff found the site inaccessible.

Crisis meetings between the school and education board followed as pupils used makeshift classrooms in the school's assembly hall and principal's office.

The education board, which owns the site on which the mobile classrooms were placed, initially claimed building control and planning approvals were needed before a lease for the land could be signed over. However, Belfast City Council confirmed that building control had been approved, while the necessary planning approval was being processed.

The school was considering teaching pupils outside normal hours and at alternative accommodation in church halls and hotels until the agreement was struck at yesterday morning's meeting.

A joint statement following the meeting said that "outstanding work to ensure health and safety compliance is nearing completion".

"All parties are working towards pupils accessing the mobile buildings by the week commencing September 30," the statement added.

However, staff at Hazelwood College have claimed the dispute could have been resolved within days had a gas company been allowed access to the mobile classrooms on September 3, as the school had planned.

"The gas company was to go in to make the (gas) connection on September 3, and then a full health and safety check was to be carried out at the beginning of that week," Bronagh McLaughlin, the school's marketing and enterprise manager, said yesterday.

"But we could never get the gas connected because the site was locked. We had to turn away the gas company twice."

A spokesman for Belfast Education and Library Board said it never received a request to access the site.

However, the board and Department of Education cited outstanding health and safety issues as the sole obstacle to opening the classrooms earlier.

North Antrim DUP MLA and chair of the Assembly's education committee, Mervyn Storey, said that lessons needed to be learned from he episode.

"I appreciate that you need to be absolutely sure that compliance is right," he said.

"But I think there's a proportion of responsibility on both the school and the (education) board on this occasion.

"Everyone knew the date the children were going back to school.

"It's an example of a management process that has not worked."

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