Inner-city school praised for helping refugees faces axe

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The sprawling 2,000-pupil North Westminster Community School has been heralded as a beacon for the comprehensive system. One-third of the pupils are refugees and the predominantly Muslim school has won praise from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, for the way it welcomes them and gives them a start in life.

The sprawling 2,000-pupil North Westminster Community School has been heralded as a beacon for the comprehensive system. One-third of the pupils are refugees and the predominantly Muslim school has won praise from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, for the way it welcomes them and gives them a start in life.

But despite the school's recent good record, it is the latest inner-city school to face the axe as the Government rushes to expand its controversial city academies programme.

It is to be replaced by two city academies - one of which will be run by a Christian foundation.

The move has angered teachers as the majority religion at the school is Islam. Only 8 per cent of the pupils are of white British descent and one in three comes from refugee or asylum-seeking families.

Bernard Regan, Westminster representative of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Of the eight secondary schools in Westminster, five are denominational - Christian. There is a concern that this is going to create an imbalance. If there was a need for another religion-based school it would have to be a Muslim school if you just consider numbers."

The teachers also say the decision to turn it into two academies appears to mark a departure from Tony Blair's mantra that the programme is designed to replace failing schools.

North Westminster did have "serious weakness" in its past but the latest Ofsted report said: "Leadership and management at the school are now very good."

The teachers believe the school's fate reflects the fact that civil servants are under pressure to expand the programme's remit. The Prime Minister has said the Government will set up a network of 200 academies by the end of the decade.

At first sight, the North Westminster school looks like a giant comprehensive split across three sites. It is one of the largest secondary schools in the country, born in 1981 out of a merger between three secondary schools. But supporters say it uses the three sites to create two small lower schools for pupils aged 11 to 14 and a larger school for those aged 14 to 19.

Michael Marland, its first headteacher, who remained in post for nearly 20 years, said the structure enabled it to offer pupils the "personalised learning" package that ministers say they want every pupil to have. "At 11 you go into one of the smallest lower secondary schools in London then you get a choice of specialisms at 14." That, he said, helped pupils get over the kind of worries normally associated with transferring to secondary school at 11.

Mr Marland is also upset at the proposal to split the school and have half of it run by a Christian foundation. "A large school is better able to help people of an ethnic minority because there will be a wider range of backgrounds for them to mix with," he said.

Under the proposal being put out for consultation by Westminster City Council, the school will be split into two - with the third site being sold off for development. Half of it will become a city academy specialising in the media and run by the United Learning Trust, an offshoot of the Church Schools Foundation. This will be known as the Paddington Academy. The trust has assured teachers that pupils of all faiths will be welcome at the school and there will be no attempt to try to convert them to Christianity. A trust spokeswoman said the school was still having discipline problems despite being taken off Ofsted's "serious weaknesses" register - and Muslim parents had backed the takeover during consultations.

The other half of the school, to be run by a property company, Chelsfield, and specialise in "international business and enterprise", will be known as the Westminster Academy.

One teacher gave a wry smile at the thought of the school, with its preponderance of refugee children, turning into an international business college. "Presumably, with its intake, it should be teaching about Third World debt and how the major international companies are exploiting it," he said.

Westminster City Council said the plan for two academies had received broad support. "Consultation has shown that parents support our vision that all secondary schools should be large enough to offer a full subject range but small enough to provide an individual focus on hard work and achievement," it said. "We believe this can best be achieved by replacing this large three-site school with two smaller single-site schools."

Brian Connell, Conservative cabinet member for education on Westminster council, said: "I don't want to wait until a school is on special measures [failing] before taking action to improve it. It is a school that has got surplus places and is not meeting all its pupils' aspirations."

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