Hackney boy finds dosh to give his old manor a healthier future

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Hackney is the most deprived borough in the country: nearly 85 per cent of its children are from immigrant families, and many of their parents speak no English.

Just the place, thought Jack Petchey, to set up a new academy to specialise in the traditionally exclusive medical sciences.

When the Petchey academy opens in September, its 180 founding pupils - it will eventually hold 1,200 - will work with London medical schools and hospitals to encourage pupils to consider careers in medicine. This is a groundbreaking shift for the academies scheme, as almost all so far have specialised in business and enterprise or sport.

But Mr Petchey is not the only one to go out on a limb. The Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool, sponsored by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, will specialise in the environment.

However, these unusual academies have been greeted with scepticism by Sir Cyril Taylor, the chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

He has described their specialisations as "weird".

"I mean, come on," he said earlier this year. "Teach kids some basic hard academic subjects, learn to be a health worker later on."

Mr Petchey is an east London-bred entrepreneur who bought a second-hand car after the war with his pound;34 discharge payment, and set up a taxi company. He diversified into timeshares and now, aged 81, has a broad equities portfolio including recently buying into 200 pubs.

While pub owners may not usually be at the forefront of the Government's health and education programmes, Mr Petchey's new academy will focus on health, even to the extent of having a training kitchen and restaurant where students can cook Jamie Oliver-style meals and sit around a table to eat them.

Even that much could be a struggle. "We will train students to sit down to eat, to have conversations over a meal and to use the right cutlery," said Alan Billington, chairman of the Jack Petchey Foundation and a governor of the academy. "Quite a lot of people from the inner city do not have well-developed social skills. I talked to one person who had never sat down for a meal until he was 22.

"It's not going to be easy to establish a culture of success, because there's perhaps a tradition among newly-arrived people that it's unlikely that you will be able to get a good job, to go to university, to be a doctor or nurse."

It was Hackney council that suggested Petchey academy's medical specialism.

Rita Krishna, the council's cabinet member for children and young people's services, said it was an exciting opportunity to "grow our own" doctors, nurses and carers.

"We need to break the traditional mould that medicine is a career only for people from affluent backgrounds and give more young people from deprived backgrounds in Hackney the chance," she said.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, paid tribute last week to the new academies. "In boroughs such as Hackney people are moving to try to send their children to the academies. If we can get that social mix where both poorer families and the better-off want to be in state schools, then that really is progress," he said.

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