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Mother fights Government over black free school

DETERMINED: Patricia Johnson at home in Crystal Palace (Photo: Bart Chan)

A MOTHER who is passionate about her children’s education is preparing for a legal battle with the Department for Education (DfE) after it rejected proposals for a free school aimed at helping black boys at risk of gang culture.

Plans for the Diaspora High School, earmarked for Lewisham, southeast London, were first discussed in 2006, before the free schools legislation came into effect in 2010.

But two applications for free school status have been turned down by Education Secretary Michael Gove, allegedly because the scheme was deemed too ambitious and that the teachers at the helm lacked experience.

As a result, mother-of-six Patricia Johnson, who has two young boys she claims have been consigned to the “scrapheap” of mainstream education, decided to take action.

Johnson, from Crystal Palace, south London, won the first round of her legal campaign on March 4 when a High Court judge gave her the go-ahead to contest Gove’s decision at a judicial review.

The contention is that the DfE failed in its duty under the 2010 Equalities Act.

Johnston told The Voice she was fighting to enable young people to have opportunities in a system that has labelled them as “failures.”

“I’m trying to achieve an opportunity for the children and young people who have been permanently excluded from the mainstream school system,” said Johnson, whose 15-year-old son has not been properly schooled for the last five years.

“There is a gap in the system at the moment; a lot of black boys are deemed unteachable, unruly and uncontrollable – and I don’t think that is true.

“I’ve had a very bad experience of the school system over the last six years; the situation needs to be addressed,” she said.

Johnson feels the best way for this to be remedied is for the state to give its approval and funding to open schools like Diaspora, allowing it to teach disadvantaged children in the south London area.

The proposed school is the brainchild of two teachers, Kay Johnson and Anne Broni, who plan to admit boys aged four to 19 and specialise in vocational subjects like electrical engineering, plumbing or architectural design.

Their vision included implementing a system which guarantees all school leavers undergoing a three-month work experience placement.

To date, 57 vocational mentors have signed up, as well as a life skills coach and a counsellor.

Johnson has over 33 years experience as a primary and secondary school teacher and Broni has 18 years teaching at the secondary level.

DENIED: Education secretary Michael Gove

However, their application for free school status was denied twice.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Every Free School application is assessed by officials who are committed to impartial judgement.”

According to the spokesperson, “Ministers approve only those applications that have the best chance of delivering the excellent education that every child deserves. Inevitably some groups are disappointed, but we must strive to ensure we are guaranteeing the best possible approach to each child’s education and to taxpayers’ money.”

Last year, a senior Cambridge University professor, Dr Michael Hrebeniak, said he had “no qualms” in accusing DfE officers of “racism and sexism in respect” to their “inexplicably contemptuous behaviour.”

The English studies director and senior admissions tutor penned a letter to Gove’s department expressing his anger.

He wrote: “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.”

The academic was on course to become a governor at the proposed school, after reading in The Independent about its mission to tackle youth crime in the locality.

Similarly, Johnson became involved in the project after reading about Diaspora High School in The Voice two years ago. “When I read about the school I felt elated. I felt that now a certain group of young people stood a chance to achieve” the 48-year-old said. “I totally disagree with them [on the teachers not being experienced enough]. Both are more than qualified, more than experienced and, in addition, they have the passion and the conviction to teach those children and make sure they come out with something at the end of it.”

Johnson’s solicitor, Angela Jackman, said: “In view of the historical and well documented under-achievement of African Caribbean boys in the education system, it is all the more important that Diaspora’s application should have been subject to a fair and open process which takes into account the government’s duties under the Equality Act 2010.

These include a requirement to have regard to removing or reducing disadvantages faced by groups of a particular ethnicity. The court was persuaded on 4 March that the legal grounds are arguable, so a final hearing will take place, hopefully in or around May.”

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