Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

I believe head's tough love will produce results

When my younger son was at school, and I know he will forgive me for mentioning this, he was a bit of a scruff. To be totally honest "a bit of" is a bit of an understatement.

I did my very best to spruce him up. But no sooner had he left the house every morning than his regulation school trousers were hoicked down to that weird half-mast level for which they were never designed.

His shirt tail came out, the top button was hastily undone and his strange string of a school tie, its innards spilling out, was pulled loose. By the end of the first week of any term his new blazer always looked like he'd slept in it. In a builder's skip.

For years I tried. Then one day I just gave up. When the Teacher for Uniform Enforcement phoned (as he did regularly) I used the old Titanic excuse. He was all right when he left here.

I smiled a little at the memory when I heard about how Kathleen Gormley, the new principal of Hazelwood Integrated College in Belfast, had provoked the wrath of some parents after it was claimed she'd told pupils: "This is not a school for sluts and scruffs."

Go Ms Gormley I thought. That's the way to do it. As parents, most of us can take on board the suggestion our sons occasionally fall below the standard of immaculate. Scruffs isn't the worst insult.

But what parent wants to hear it said - or inferred - that their young daughter looks like a slut?

That word is so very, very powerful. So very, very derogatory. So very, very inflammatory.

So no, I don't think the parents of Hazelwood were totally out of order - and rejecting discipline per se - when they launched their Facebook campaign against the new head. (Facebook with its reputation for encouraging vicious and hysterical reaction probably wasn't the best way to go about it.)

Ms Gormley has since been big enough to apologise for how any comment she made may have been interpreted. The parents' page has been taken down. Both parties have done the right thing.

And ironically the very things which fuelled the controversy - not just the passion of the head teacher's comments, but also the anger of the parents at her remarks - suggest to me that Hazelwood's future is bright.

Everything about Ms Gormley - including her impressive CV - commends her as a teacher determined to do her very best for her pupils. She describes herself as very strict. She won't settle for second best and she won't expect her pupils to either. She won't assume that because some come from a disadvantaged background they don't deserve the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Coming from a poor background myself, I have such empathy with that view.

And as we have seen, the parents of Hazelwood care deeply too. Parents make a very definite decision when they send their children to an integrated school. These are not people who couldn't care less. They too want the very best for those kids.

Teaching staff and parents working in unison is vital in any school. With an inspiring leader like Ms Gormley at the helm such a team can achieve anything.

At the weekend I was talking to a friend about the late, great Ernie Davis, the legendary headmaster of Boys' Model who refused to believe that the children of the working class were any less academically able - or less deserving of a fine education - than the sons and daughters of the well-heeled. Ernie used to say the difference between the Model and the posher grammars was that "they make doctors and teachers and lawyers out of the sons of doctors and teachers and lawyers. We make doctors and teachers and lawyers out of the sons of labourers."

Ernie, I imagine, would have approved of Kathleen Gormley and her vision and her strict standards and her determination, along with the parents, to do her very best for the children of Hazelwood. She - and all of them - deserve that chance.

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