A top principal hired to raise standards in a Belfast school has vehemently denied referring to pupils as “sluts” and “scruffs” during a school assembly.
But infuriated parents whose children attend Hazelwood Integrated College in north Belfast have set up a Facebook page attacking Kathleen Gormley — who only took control of the school in September.
Police have now been called in after receiving a complaint about comments made about Ms Gormley on the social media website.
A number of parents are angry over the tough regime the headmistress has introduced in the school where less than a third of pupils achieved five GCSEs at A* to C including English and maths.
However, Ms Gormley — who turned around the academic fortunes of St Cecilia’s College in Londonderry — has vowed to continue with her plans, even though they have caused controversy.
Her changes include a new uniform, additional English and maths classes, stricter discipline and new rules over pupils’ hairstyles and the amount of make-up they can wear.
The stand-off emerged last week during a special assembly after the principal chastised pupils for bringing the school into disrepute.
An email sent by Ms Gormley to a concerned parent revealed that she had spoken to pupils after an alleged assault on a member of staff by a student and another incident in a shopping centre.
But a number of parents have now claimed that during the assembly Ms Gormley told pupils, “this is not a school for sluts or scruffs”.
However, Ms Gormley told the Belfast Telegraph: “It’s not true. Yes, I was very angry with students last week over something that happened in school but no children were called a name by me, definitely not.”
Both the Belfast Education and Library Board and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education have confirmed that they have received a number of concerns from parents about Hazelwood Integrated.
The two bodies advised parents to contact the principal directly in a bid to resolve the issue.
Ms Gormley is credited with transforming her former school in Creggan into one of the best performing all-ability schools in Northern Ireland.
And she believes there are challenges for any principal when they take over a school.
She explained: “I think any new principal when they come into a school is reinforcing rules and the majority of people will like that. Some will not like that, but I was hired to raise standards and that is what I am doing and I have the support of all of the staff, the board of governors and the majority of parents.
“To be honest, when you are a new principal not everyone is going to like your standards, and I am really, really strict. I am known for running a school with rules,” she added.
Although some parents have criticised her leadership style the majority of parents the Belfast Telegraph spoke to on Monday were supportive of her approach.
But Gina Crowe from west Belfast, who has two children at the school, is unhappy with Ms Gormley’s zero tolerance stance. She has sought a meeting with the principal.
She said: “If she can turn the school around and give them better results that’s fine. But she needs to do it in a way that the children are happy to go to school and not frightened.”
But Pauline Millarm, whose daughter is at Hazelwood, defended Ms Gormley.
“I think she’s doing a great job. She’s trying to bring the school up to better standards. I fully agree with what she is doing,” she said.
The principal: In her own words
‘The students are brilliant, I have high hopes for them all. But there are rules’
I am in this role to have better standards for children, to give children better life chances and there is nothing that sways me from that.
The reason I am doing this is not because I dislike children, not because I want to call children names, it’s because I want children to perform better.
My target will be in the course of the next few years 100% of the children will leave with at least five GCSEs at A* to C. In order to do that you have to have a school with rules and a school with discipline and behaviour so that the maximum amount of time is spent on teaching and learning.
I really want it to be the top performing non-selective school in Belfast as quick as I can possibly do that. I think the Hazelwood students are brilliant. I think they are capable of higher results. I have high hopes for them all.
Children having to have their hair tied back is a health and safety issue, particularly in the science room.
Things like having synthetic braids is a health and safety risk because if a Bunsen burner gets them they go straight up.
Yes there are rules about behaviour, and yes about uniform. We are looking at a new skirt. They have different samples at the minute and it is hoped in the next few weeks, along with year heads, that the girls will vote for a new skirt.
There has been a Year 12 parents’ meeting, there are parents on the board of governors, there is a newsletter that is just about to go out.
I have had no formal meeting with all the parents because we would not be able to get them into a hall. The parents are fully aware of my vision for the school.
I don’t have time to speak to everyone personally because when I am speaking to people personally I am not actually fulfilling my role here.
Kathleen Gormley was speaking to Lindsay Fergus
The parents: What they say
‘Our issue is with her general treatment of the children... there should be compromises’
A mother who set up the controversial Facebook page criticising Kathleen Gormley has claimed female pupils are being asked to kneel at school to ensure their skirts are long enough.
Gina Crowe (38) from Belfast, whose son and daughter attend Hazelwood Integrated College, described the alleged practice as part of a “zero tolerance” approach adopted by the school’s new principal.
She claimed the new policy prohibits children from wearing body piercings or make-up in school or having their hair dyed.
Ms Crowe told the Belfast Telegraph: “She was getting them to get down on their knees, and if their skirts touched the ground it was deemed to be knee length. Quite a lot of kids have seen it happening.”
She added: “Our issue is her general treatment of the children. There should be compromises. But it's ‘my way or leave the school’.”
On Monday night the Facebook page — which was set up by Ms Crowe on Friday night — had 430 friends. However, it is not known how many of these are parents of pupils at the school.
Ms Crowe said she established the Facebook page after, she claims, Ms Gormley told pupils “the school is not for sluts or scruffs” during an unscheduled assembly last week.
Ms Crowe claimed: “She called them out to speak about behaviour in public and then went on to pupils' appearance coming to school.
“And she then said the school is not for sluts or scruffs.
“My daughter was at the assembly.”
She added: “I want an explanation of why she wanted to use that language to kids.
“The kids organised a walkout on Facebook for today. But I have asked the kids not to do it.”
Other parents who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph on Monday were largely supportive of the school’s new head.
A 38-year-old mother-of-two boys who attend said: “The school was bad to begin with. I think it was an advantage to bring someone new in.
“I am in favour of her because it’s time things are done properly. It’s for the better.”
Kerry Doyle (24), whose 13-year-old sister goes to the school, added: “I think the changes are good. There needs to be more structure put in place.”
Kathleen Gormley: An instigator of dramatic change
Kathleen Gormley is the former principal of St Cecilia’s College in Derry. For 10 years she led the teaching staff at the Catholic all-girls school. She also taught history and politics there for some 16 years.
St Cecilia’s is currently one of the top performing non-selective schools in Northern Ireland with 54.1% of students leaving school with five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths, according to the most up-to-date figures from the department of education.
Of its 850 pupils, almost half come from a socially deprived background, with more than 41% of them entitled to free school meals.
Ms Gormley had two goals for St Cecilia’s — raising standards and securing a new school building. She achieved both of these targets and it was the realisation of her dream for the college that prompted her decision to move on.
During her tenure, she spearheaded many initiatives, including forging stronger links between the school and employers. That involved both teachers and pupils undertaking work experience to see first-hand what qualifications, skills and experience were required to secure a job.
She is also co-author of ‘Rivalry and Conflict’, a study book that explores historic events, including the Siege of Derry, the Reformation and Battle of the Boyne. She has also written a number of other local history books.
Ms Gormley, who has a Masters degree in modern history, was a former history adviser to the Western Education and Library Board.