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Northern Ireland head who sparked revolt backs Kent college principal in uniform row

By Luke Barnes

Published 09/09/2016

Kathleen O'Hare
Kathleen O'Hare

A Northern Ireland principal who sparked a revolt among parents when she introduced a tough school uniform policy has backed a "Gestapo headmaster" facing a similar row in England.

Kathleen O'Hare, who caused uproar when she was accused by parents in 2012 of calling her own pupils "sluts and scruffs", admitted that she could have done things differently.

But she added that her tough line in ensuring pupils wore the correct uniform would teach them lessons that would benefit them throughout life.

Her admission came after furious parents descended on the Hartsdown Academy in Margate, Kent, this week to protest against its strict dress code.

Police had to quell the crowd outside the school, whose headmaster, Matthew Tate, has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for incorrect uniforms.

Mrs O'Hare, principal of Hazelwood Integrated College in Newtownabbey, said that uniforms were essential in helping to foster school pride and maintain discipline.

"It gives a perception of the school in the community, and 30 years of experience in education has taught me that if a child is wearing the correct uniform, they're probably keeping to the other rules as well," she added.

"You can't run a school in the same way you'd run your house with two or three children.

"Sometimes, loving and caring for your schoolchildren is about a standard of discipline that tells the children that you care about them and their actions. It's a small thing, but the longer you're in education, you realise that if a child is breaking one rule, they're probably breaking three others."

The principal also claimed that sticking to the proper uniform would help prepare students for employment and job interviews in later life.

Mrs O'Hare said: "It's hard to get work in Northern Ireland and we want the students to be able to get the very best work experience and opportunities. It's not because I want to be evil to them and tell them they're not allowed to wear skinny jeans."

Deputy principal Maurice Fitzsimons said that the rules had also led to a drop in littering and graffiti in the school.

He likened it to the famous 'Broken Windows' policing theory in New York, which helped police achieve an unheralded drop in crime through focusing on small offences such as begging.

Mrs O'Hare, who is in her fifth year as head of Hazelwood Integrated, courted controversy in 2012 when she took over as principal for the under-performing north Belfast school.

She introduced a new uniform and strict rules over hairstyles and make-up, allegedly telling pupils: "This is not a school for sluts or scruffs".

Mrs O'Hare denied the allegations, but admitted that she started off on the wrong foot with parents.

"The first year (of) being a head teacher isn't easy because coming in they'll want to bring a certain standard of their philosophy and their rules," she said.

"You don't take up the role lightly. Invariably during the first year of headship, there's always a crisis where their notion of how they should run the school fits in the school.

"It would be much easier for any principal to just turn a blind eye. It actually takes more out of teachers to correct children."

Mrs O'Hare pointed to the school's recent exam results, in which 87% of pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C - the highest in the school's history - as evidence that her policies had worked.

She said she believed the parents protesting at the Hartsdown Academy were a vocal minority and that the silent majority of mothers and fathers were likely supportive of the new standards.

"I wouldn't be surprised if next year the school is over-subscribed," Mrs O'Hare added.

Year 13 students at Hazelwood Integrated also spoke out to back Hartsdown Academy's uniform policy. Andrew Mullan said: "I definitely think the Margate headmaster was within his rights. It's kind of unfair to those who do make an effort to be presentable for those other students to be allowed to come in not looking as well.

"He made it quite clear - he sent a note out with uniform requirements showing what needed to be worn. The parents knew, but just didn't seem willing to make an effort to enforce it."

Emma Jackson added: "I remember I forgot my tie a while ago and was freaking out. It's important to set an example.

"You just get up and wear your uniform, it's not one of the hardest things to do."

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