Take-away giant brings back errant students: A fast-food chain has helped to finance a US-inspired academy for persistent truants. Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
NIGEL WRIGHT, 17, flew in from Miami yesterday to explain how his life had changed since he attended a Burger King Academy in the US.

His grades, he said, had risen from Es and Fs to As and Bs, and he had discovered talents he did not know he had. 'I am a great speaker, a great writer and a great leader.'

The fast-food giant has donated pounds 50,000 to refurbish a building in Tower Hamlets, east London, and will pay between pounds 5,000 and pounds 10,000 a year for extra-curricular activities at the Burger King Academy for persistent truants, which was officially opened yesterday. Tower Hamlets education authority will pay its four teachers and meet its running costs, a total of pounds 250,000 a year.

The academy, which will cater for two dozen 15- and 16- year-olds, lacks the extravagance of some of its US counterparts - there will be no burger vouchers for top- scoring students, one incentive at the Pittsburgh academy.

Nigel Travis, managing director of the company which runs 26 academies in 15 states across the US in co-operation with the charity Cities in Schools, was adamant that it had become involved 'because education enriches everybody, both donor and recipient. As a major organisation we believe it is our duty to give something back to society'.

Anne Sofer, Tower Hamlets' chief education officer, said the company's contribution had given the centre a comfortable new building which the authority's budget could not have provided. 'It isn't that we are shirking our responsibility. It is our genuine belief that young people will benefit from the idea that the whole community cares for them.'

She warned against taking a moral stance because of 'aesthetic feelings' about hamburgers. 'There are a lot of aspects of modern life about which people have reservations. I am a trustee of Nuffield which made its money out of motor cars. If it is appropriate for them to donate laboratories to ancient universities, I can't see why it isn't appropriate for Burger King to help children at risk in cities.'

Jay, 15, who came to the academy three weeks ago after 10 months of absconding from school, said: 'It's brilliant. There is more respect for us here. We are all in the same boat and can share each other's problems. I haven't bunked off since I came.'

Jay started to play truant because of problems at home and school. 'I just couldn't handle it.' Now he hopes to take eight or nine GCSEs next summer.

Nigel Wright added: 'I don't look on it as Burger King or Tower Hamlets, but people who care.'

(Photograph omitted)