Belfast Telegraph

Teachers want to teach, pupils want to be taught, but now the courts must rule in school lockout row

By Anna Maguire

The mother of a pupil barred from his classroom has challenged an education board in the High Court.

Students have been locked out of 14 new classrooms for a week – which should accommodate maths, ICT, religious studies and learning for life and work classes.

The sprawling structure was built on land adjacent to Hazelwood Integrated College in north Belfast.

The land is owned by Belfast Education and Library Board, and a dispute over issues connected to the lease of the land has led to a lengthening and very public dispute.

Last Monday evening (September 2), the education board padlocked the structure, locking resources and computers and other equipment inside, a day before the school reopened after the summer.

The education board cited the need for Department of Education approval – as well as health and liability issues, which the school insists are resolved.

A lawyer for the Year 11 pupil said BELB had yet to make clear what these health and liability issues are.

Meanwhile, pupils remain locked out.

Yesterday, the High Court heard that the situation will lead to "chaos" if it is allowed to continue.

Counsel for the education board said the mobile classrooms could remain locked for the coming two to three weeks.

However, Malachi Maguire QC said preventing access to the mobile classrooms was having a detrimental impact on the education of his client, who was due to study inside the now locked facility.

Yesterday, counsel acting for the pupil's mother lodged an application for an interim relief order to open the facility temporarily, until a lasting resolution is reached.

The applicant cannot be named for legal reasons.

"Three weeks... amounts to the loss of 12% from the school year and that's going to have a detrimental impact on the applicant and the school body," Mr Maguire QC said.

"This denies our applicant the right to education. I believe this will harm the future career of this pupil and it is more damaging because he's starting his GCSEs," he added.

He said pupils are "suffering because of the dispute between the board and the school".

A letter from one of the school's vice-principals, who has been re-working the school's timetable every day to accommodate pupils, was read out in court.

He described relocating up to 50 teachers every hour to try and accommodate the school's 893 pupils within the space available.

A makeshift sixth form has been set up in the school's Assembly Hall, he said.

"I feel I'm personally at breaking point," he added in the letter.

On Tuesday, 199 sixth-form pupils were sent home by staff who said they did not have the space to accommodate them at that time.

Following another meeting between Belfast Education and Library Board and the school's senior staff yesterday, Bronagh McLaughlin, a senior staff member, said that while pupils will be at school today, the possibility of pupils using alternative facilities such as church halls or hotels would be discussed this morning.

However, Mr Justice Tracey yesterday rejected KRW Law's application for an interim relief order.

The mobile classrooms were gifted to the north Belfast school by another school, and funded by private benefactors, but Hazelwood College had a limited timeframe within which to take the offer of the classrooms, the court heard.

Paul McLaughlin QC, acting on behalf of Belfast Education and Library Board, said that on May 8, the chief executive of Belfast Education and Library Board and Hazelwood College's principal Kathleen Gormley (left) held a meeting in which outstanding issues around the lease of the land on which the mobile classrooms were discussed.

"During the course of that meeting, the principal asked would it be possible to turn a blind eye because they wanted them (the mobile classrooms) in place by September, and she was told 'no'. The message quite clearly was prepare a plan B," Mr McLaughlin said.

"Unfortunately, the principal has gone ahead and started to construct these classrooms over the summer."

He said the education board was not aware of construction work on the site until suspicions were aroused late in the summer. Adjourning the case for two weeks, Mr Justice Tracey said he wanted further affadavits from the applicant and Hazelwood College's principal.

BACKGROUND

Last November, Hazelwood Integrated College hit the headlines when a stand-off emerged between parents and headteacher Ms Gormley. Parents claimed she said she didn't want "sluts or scruffs" going to the school, but she denied calling pupils names. Some parents were also unhappy with the strict approach of the highly-respected principal. Changes she introduced included having teachers being called by their title and surname, long hair having to be tied up and a ban on body piercings and make-up.

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