College of 'superstars' faces final knock-out
"You will say what superstars my kids are, won't you? I hate it when people are negative about them," says Liz Jones, principal of Lennox Lewis College in Hackney.
This is probably the first time her pupils, including those permanently excluded from other schools, persistent truants and newly-released young offenders, have been described as "superstars". And it may be the last, as this "second-chance" institution is set to close within six months unless funding can be found.
The troubled college started a new term this week, with an intake of 60 students. Only three years old, it has hit the headlines twice - over the resignation of former principal Bertie Ross just three months after its opening, and again in 1995 - when it topped London's truancy league tables.
Liz Jones was drafted in at a time when the college had only nine pupils and offered no set curriculum or nationally-recognised qualifications.
Having brought in a new staff and created a programme of national vocational qualifications, she is "desolate" at the thought of closure. She says: "We have ever-increasing referrals and an attendance rate of 80 per cent. To be forced to close now when things are going right is ridiculous. But we can't rely on Lennox Lewis going into the boxing ring every year."
The college's Pounds 5 million costs have been met by world champion boxer Lennox Lewis and his business manager, Panos Eliades. Calculated on wealth percentage, Mr Lewis's contributions make him Britain's second most generous benefactor, topped only by financier George Soros.
Lewis's altruism stems from his own childhood. At the age of eight, he was excluded from school for fighting. "I don't doubt I was aggressive, disruptive and totally uninterested in learning - but I am very much aware that the school's action could have resulted in me becoming permanently alienated from society," he said earlier this year.
But Mr Eliades says: "Lennox and I cannot keep going. It's very sad, but if we don't stop soon we'll lose our homes. It makes me so angry when I think how much money the Government spends on keeping young offenders locked up."
A regular visitor, Lewis is known for sitting in on classes and taking difficult pupils aside for one-to-one chats. Liz Jones says she "never expected to be having discussions on educational policy with a world heavyweight boxer".
Annatalie Wilson, 16, is studying for NVQs in music and media. She explains: "We do thank Lennox a lot. He knows where he came from and he's proof that second chances can work. It's thanks to him we've got one."
Last year Annatalie went back to her old school to display proudly her "best student of the term" award: "They were surprised I'm doing so well. I used to get into trouble all the time. Here they've got time to talk it through with you. They treat you like a grown-up and so you behave like one."
Based in a former metal factory in east London with facilities including a gymnasium, recording studio and hairdressing salon, the college has running costs of Pounds 750,000 a year. It has been refused both lottery and European Union funding. Ms Jones says: "We fall between two camps - education and criminal justice, which is too blurry for some funding criteria."