'Free schools? A lousy Tory sham to serve the ruthlessly ambitious middle classes'

The Government's rejection of a free school that aimed to steer black youths away from gang culture has sparked a furious response from a Cambridge academic. Richard Garner reports

A senior Cambridge University admissions tutor today delivers a withering attack on the Government's flagship free schools policy – saying it serves only "the ruthlessly ambitious middle classes and religious zealots".

Dr Michael Hrebeniak, director of English studies and senior admissions tutor at Wolfson College, Cambridge, accuses the Department for Education of racism and sexism in its rejection of a plan by two women teachers to set up a school to steer pupils – in particular black boys – away from the gang culture in south London. Last night he called for a judicial review of that decision.

Dr Hrebeniak was set to become a governor of the Diaspora High School in Lewisham – which planned to set up Saturday morning master classes to help young black boys to aspire to go to top universities such as Cambridge. In rejecting the application for a a second time earlier this month, Ghulam Abbas, from the free schools group at the DfE, conceded it set out "a very ambitious offer for a high-quality academic, vocational and social education with a highly ambitious pupil outcome target".

However, he added, officials doubted that the applicants could deliver the plan and claimed the duo who had presented it, teachers Kay Johnston and Anne Broni, had "limited experience of school leadership".

Dr Hrebeniak, who become involved in the project after reading about its attempt to combat south London gang culture in The Independent and made it clear he was acting in a personal capacity, said the new rejection showed the free school project up as a "lousy commercial sham" created by the Conservatives to benefit middle-class parents and the religious.

Earlier research into the free schools project shows they do take in fewer deprived pupils than the average for their locality. In addition, one third of the 100 given the go-ahead earlier this month described themselves as religious in character. However, the DfE insisted all free schools had been created "to improve the education of children in their area".

The Diaspora proposal, for an all-in school for four to 16-year-olds, was first submitted to the DfE just over a year ago. Among its plans was the guarantee of three months' work experience to all pupils leaving school to avoid their being sent out on to the streets and becoming prey to gang culture. More than 50 employers had signed up to act as mentors.

In a letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove written after the school was first rejected last September – the contents of which Dr Hrebeniak said he stands by following the recent second rejection – he said the two teachers behind the project had "50 years of experience as transformative teachers in inner-city schools".

"In keeping with their enviable sense of probity and dignity, Ms Johnston and Ms Broni would perhaps not bring themselves to muster the charges of racism and sexism in respect of your departmental officers' inexplicably contemptuous behaviour towards them," he said. "I, nonetheless, would have no such qualms."

Ms Johnston and Ms Broni said they now planned to set up their own self-financing supplementary school – giving evening and Saturday morning classes in the three Rs to youths struggling at school.

They plan to appeal for private donations from sponsors or charities to set up Diaspora without state support for it as a free school. They say, though, that they want nothing further to do with the free school movement.

Ms Broni said: "It was difficult to argue against the kind of tick-box approach they adopt towards proposals. They said to us when we queried them 'Well, we're new at this'. Well, that's not good enough. They're in charge of ensuring kids get a decent education."

In his letter, which was copied to David Cameron, Dr Hrebeniak added: "I am aware that the current maintained sector figures for Cambridge [admissions] are little short of a disgrace. Last year Cambridge admitted a mere handful of students of Afro-Caribbean or Bangladeshi origin.Diaspora High school would offer a unique channel for addressing the shameful imbalance."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said that many free schools "specifically want to raise standards for disadvantaged young people in poor areas".

"Free schools do not serve any commercial purpose. Groups cannot profit from schools," she added.

Case study: The school that offered hope was turned down

Sandra Smith, from Crofton Park in Lewisham, might consider moving house if the option of sending her nine-year-old son, Onorode, to Diaspora High School remains off the table, because she does not believe the local council-run state schools will provide him with a good enough education.

A single mother-of-three, Ms Smith said her son – who is in a mainstream primary school – was on the autistic spectrum.

"The good thing about Diaspora was that they encouraged parental involvement," she said. She added that she was convinced it would give him the extra help that he needed.

"Boys are not achieving in the education system at the moment," she added. "I sincerely thought this school would help him achieve. I was very, very sad when I heard it was not going to get the go-ahead."

Ms Smith also believes the existing education provision in state schools is better for girls than boys. Many academics agree that the modular approach to GCSEs and A levels benefits their more methodical approach to learning.

Diaspora, with its accent on boosting aspirations and guaranteeing its students three months' work experience on leaving school, offered more hope than the existing state schools.

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