'Free' school to combat gang culture turned down by Gove

The school told officials it had 110 expressions of interest from parents for the 120 places on offer in the first year

A plan for a pioneering "free" school aimed at breaking the link between teenagers and gang culture has been turned down by the Government, fuelling concerns that the process for giving the go-ahead to such schools is too bureaucratic.

Diaspora High School in Lewisham is in an area of south London where many teenagers have fallen prey to drugs and gang culture. It has been flooded with applications from parents as a result of its promise to provide their children with three months' guaranteed work experience to avoid them going on the dole and ending up on the streets. Yet it has been turned down by the Department for Education because it failed to satisfy civil servants that it had enough expressions of interest to guarantee 50 per cent of enrolment in its first two years of operation.

The school, which is for three- to 19-year-olds, was asked to give evidence of enrolment into the reception year and first year of secondary schooling.

It plans to operate a two-form entry system of 290 pupils into its reception class and four-form entry into year seven, the first year of secondary schooling. It told officials that it had already had expressions of interest from 110 parents for the 120 places on offer in the first year, with more expected to come, thinking that showed adequate support.

When it received the letter, Kay Johnston, one of two teachers behind the proposal, rang the DfE to say they could easily satisfy the criteria, but was told it now did not want the information. What incensed her and her colleague, Anne Broni, was that the application form specifically stated that they did not want evidence of individual applications to support cases.

"I said, 'What, so you can just lie about it?'" said Ms Johnston. "The answer seems to be 'yes'."

They were also angry that no mention was made of any of the education plans they had outlined in their proposal. Ms Broni accused the department of rejecting the proposal with "patronising flippancy". The letter of rejection said they could reapply next year, and suggested they might like to develop their application.

So far a total of 13 free schools have been approved – including five faith schools, a former independent school – Batley Grammar, and the West London Free school proposed by the journalist and author Toby Young.

The two teachers now plan to write to the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to urge him to reconsider.

A spokeswoman for the department said: "We have received many excellent applications for 2012 and we have had to prioritise those who we think stand the most chance of success."

* In Scotland 30,000 pupils yesterday received their exams results a day early by mistake. The Scottish Qualifications Authority confirmed that the results were sent out early but that they were correct. Almost 160,000 students were waiting for results of Highers and Standard Grades to arrive today. Some 36,000 pupils signed up to get the results sent to them by text or email and almost 30,000 of those received a text message with their results yesterday. The exam body said it was making inquiries with the external contractor that sends the texts on their behalf.

Nursery to workplace

Pupils at the Diaspora High School would be guaranteed three months' work experience straight after leaving school. The plan is to break the cycle that leads to so many teenagers in its catchment area in Lewisham, south London, becoming involved in gang culture.

Pupils would be given mentors in their preferred field of employment to offer them guidance on a future career. The school, which would take children aged between three and 19, is the brainchild of two local teachers – Kay Johnston, who has taught in comprehensives in south London, and Anne Broni, head of maths at a south London boys' school. It has already recruited mentors from all walks of life, including solicitors, doctors and local firms. It is also planning to operate a skills audit of parents – so it can tap into the expertise in the local community to act as mentors. Interest in the proposed school has now mushroomed with at least 150 parents signing up to send their children to it. "We just want to get the youngsters away from the benefits culture and where that leads," said Ms Johnston.

Richard Garner

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