College that does not pull its punches
"When I give up boxing, I could always enrol myself," said Lennox Lewis, champion boxer and the proud founder of a college to help disadvantaged youngsters. "But I think me and the principal would get into a fight."
In the Lennox Lewis college, housed in a renovated factory in his native London borough of Hackney, some 60 15 to 18-year-olds will be taught basic skills, information technology, sport, music, art and drama. Vocational training is also on the agenda.
The college opened in September with 11 young men and has just taken in another eight. They are taught by 12 tutors gathered from the world of adult and further education, youth work and mainstream teaching.
The boxer and Panos Eliades, his financial adviser, contributed Pounds 2 million to set up the college and Gus John, Hackney's chief education officer, and his staff were involved from the start, advising on the educational content.
"Every secondary school in Hackney should be equipped to this standard - it makes my offices look like the back kitchen," said Mr John at last week's opening ceremony.
Although Mr Lewis's original idea was to offer places only to young black men, the college intake now reflects the racial mix of the area and will be open to women next year. Most of the students have been persistent truants and were usually referred by the education authority, schools or social services.
Bertie Ross, principal, said students have to conform to the college's code of behaviour which is based on individual responsibility, time-keeping and attendance. "We don't talk about discipline," Mr Ross said. "We explain that there are certain things you have to do - that's life. It's the real world out there."
Jo Wagerman, chief executive and former headteacher, said the aim was to make the college as unlike a school as possible with a curriculum based on vocational and social education, plus "a few lollipops". The lollipops are the lavishly-equipped recording studio, gym and darkroom.
Ray O'Neill, in charge of music, reckoned that the recording studio, designed by a company which works with the band UB40 was good enough to record an LP and he hopes that the students will learn how to be good sound engineers.
So far attendance has been nearly 100 per cent. One student, Glen Stephens, said he preferred the college as "I never liked calling teachers 'Miss' or 'Sir'. I'm doing better here than at school."
And William Knight, a basic skills tutor, said: "We take the fear out of learning; we make it enjoyable. And the one-to-one tuition means they can learn at their own pace."
The staff find the college not only a challenge, but a luxury. Kevin Grice, who spent 16 years teaching construction in Walsall, said they had been able to plan their work for the past seven months without the normal bureaucratic pressures. "A luxury, but a positive luxury."
Bobby Williamson, the local community policeman for the past eight years, said: "We're lucky to have this project here as this area has the worst crime statistics in the borough. The college has a smashing atmosphere."