Teachers criticise Michael Gove over rejection of Lewisham's Diaspora free school plans

The school was to cover an area where there is a high concentration of gangs - especially amongst black teenagers

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The Independent Online

Plans to set up a new free school aimed at stopping teenagers falling victim to the gang culture have been rejected by the Government - despite having the backing of Cambridge University and a whole host of employers.

The proposed Diaspora High School in Lewisham, south London, planned to provide all school leavers with at least three months’ work experience on reaching school leaving age - to avoid them going straight from the classroom to the streets.

The school would cover an area where there is a high concentration of gangs - especially amongst black teenagers.

Anne Broni and Kay Johnston, the two teachers behind the proposal, said the school would be co-educational and open to all  - and that they had already enlisted the support of 50 local employers from a variety of professions who would offer work experience and a three month work placement at the end of formal education.

However, in an open letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove, Ms Johnston said  the proposal had been greeted with “derision” by the Department for Education which “would like to believe this is just wishful thinking on our part”.

After the project was refused for a third time, it was proposed to seek a judicial review of the decision making process - a move that was called off after the DfE promised talks with the organisers over the scheme.

It was agreed to resubmit the proposal - but the organisers have now been told their financial planning was “of limited quality” despite the fact that it was backed by a successful global education company.

The teachers say they were incensed by the inclusion of a statement in the brief prepared by the DfE for the judicial review which - under “reasons for rejection” - said: “I recommend that this school not be approved.  This is not a school for the local community. It is for the black community. The proposers are Afro Caribbean and all their mentors are black.”

“They couldn’t be more wrong,  Our team, mentors and intake are multi-cultural,” said Ms Johnston.

“We are experienced teachers, we have proved the need for schools such as we propose, we have esteemed institutions - Cambridge University being one - willing to work with our students, we know how to teach, we share a desire to see children from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed beyond school and we believe our vision is realistic.”

Dr Michael Hrebeniak, from Cambridge University - who was planning to arrange Saturday morning enrichment classes for the pupils - added:  “The social and cultural justification for the opening of such a school in one of the most brutalised and under-privileged areas of the country has been powerfully made and is self-evident.”

He added: “My colleagues across the university who are involved with admissions are fully supportive of the initiative which will be aided by our team of student ambassadors and liaison officers.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “Ministers approve only applications that have the best chance of success and meet our strict criteria.

“Our judgement was Diaspora’s application did not meet this high bar.”

A DfE spokeswoman later added:  “It is absurd to suggest that the free school programme in any way discriminates against people from an ethnic minority background.  Many free schools overwhelmingly serve BME (black and minority ethnic) children.”