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Academy sponsor hit by riots plans skills schools for excluded

A major academy sponsor whose business was attacked by rioters in London is holding talks with the Government about establishing the first vocational schools for excluded children.

Lord Harris of Peckham, owner of the Carpetright chain of shops and the sponsor of 13 academies, wants to teach "trades" to pupils to boost their chances of finding jobs.

"I am speaking to (education secretary) Michael Gove about opening small school academies in inner-city areas for up to 200 children who have been excluded," Lord Harris told The TES.

"They would teach mechanics, hairdressing, plumbing ... teaching pupils a trade. There is no point teaching them geography. We could get them into work rather than being unemployed when they are 16-24. We have got to teach them skills."

The Harris Federation has a number of academies in areas of London affected by riots. It will have three schools in Peckham from next month and already has three in Croydon.

The burnt-out shell of the Carpetright shop in Tottenham became an iconic image of the violence in London, which broke out almost two weeks ago.

Lord Harris's plan for a new wave of vocational schools would be a radical departure from pupil referral units (PRUs), where students who have been excluded - or are at risk of exclusion - are currently sent. PRUs offer a mainstream curriculum and intensive support to pupils with the aim of returning them to regular schools.

Lord Harris said that he had been discussing his idea "for a while", but that "every Government moves quite slowly". Despite this, the Conservative peer hoped that the first school would open in Peckham in September 2012.

The plans emerged as London mayor Boris Johnson this week called for courts to be able to send 11 to 15-year-olds involved in looting and rioting to PRUs. At present only headteachers have that power.

In a letter sent to justice secretary Ken Clarke, Mr Johnson said: "Depriving the offender of their customary school place is something which would hit home.

"It would isolate them from their peer group during the school day, preventing bragging rights on school premises, and sends a salutary warning to other pupils that such behaviour will result in temporary ejection from the school community."

The Government has previously outlined plans to revamp PRUs by allowing them to be run by private providers and charities, but plans for schools for excluded children only have not previously emerged.

On the riots, Lord Harris said society needed to join forces to help motivate and discipline young people. "The Government can't do it without us all working together," he said.

He also called for the summer holidays to be shortened.

"The holidays are too long," he said. "For some it is up to eight weeks. Children easily get bored."

But NUT general secretary Christine Blower strongly criticised the peer's plan to open academies for expelled pupils.

"Provision for children and young people who are excluded should not close down subsequent education options and should also address the behaviour that lead to the exclusion in the first place," she said.

"Such provision is best provided through local authorities, which can sustain teams of relevant professionals to deal with behaviour, social and emotional issues, as well as language or learning needs."

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