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News Tory councillor resigns after remarks on London pupils' nationalities
John Cherry lambasted for 'racist' comments regarding impact of moving inner-city pupils to West Sussex schools
A Conservative councillor has resigned from the party after "unacceptable" remarks he made about the prospect of minority ethnic children from London studying in West Sussex.
John Cherry had said that Pakistani children would fail to "rise to the top" and claimed some nationalities were "uncertain" what hard work is about.
He apologised for the comments after the Conservative party announced it had begun action to suspend him.
The Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London, plans to open a boarding school for 600 students in Stedham village in September 2014. The move is being backed by the Department for Education, which calls it an inspirational project.
But some Stedham residents are reported to be bitterly opposed to the academy, which will occupy an eight-hectare (20-acre) site in the South Downs national park that was previously a school for children with special needs.
Cherry, district councillor for Stedham, told the Mail on Sunday he had serious concerns about the effect the London pupils would have on the area. "Ninety-seven per cent of pupils will be black or Asian," he said. "It depends what type of Asian. If they're Chinese, they'll rise to the top. If they're Indian, they'll rise to the top. If they're Pakistani, they won't."
Cherry also appeared to suggest that keeping the students confined to the school premises would prove dangerous. "If the children are not allowed out of the site then it will make them want to escape into the forest – it will be a sexual volcano," he said. "Has anyone asked whether these children want to be plucked from their natural surroundings? They have never done boarding before, so they won't know how it works."
The trauma of transplanting the students to a new environment, he added, would be considerable. "Stockwell is a coloured area – I have no problem with that. To be honest, I would far rather Durand took over a secondary school in London rather than shoving everybody here."
Durand's executive head, Greg Martin, said the aim of the boarding school was to change the prospects of its pupils and to create an institution of which the whole community could feel proud.
"We have been appalled by the comments from a minority of residents, but have also been heartened by the support shown by many local people – including a petition gathered by one lady, with over 100 signatures – who recognise the educational significance of this project and agree with our aim of enhancing access to the beautiful national park for children who would not otherwise have the chance," he said.
Announcing his resignation, Cherry said: "My remarks about Durand Academy, as reported in the Mail on Sunday, were plainly wrong. They were thoughtless and extremely foolish. I unreservedly apologise and withdraw them. I very much regret the distress this must have caused."
The Conservative party said it had accepted his resignation with immediate effect but did not know if he would stay on as an unaffiliated councillor. A party spokesman said: "We completely condemn what he said. These comments are totally unacceptable and do not reflect the views of the Conservative party."
The resignation comes at a difficult time for the Tories, who are struggling once again with the issues of race and immigration.
David Cameron is being advised by confidantes to take on the rise of Ukip by pledging new policies to clamp down on eastern European immigrants. But at the same time, the prime minister is concerned about allowing the party to pander to prejudices after winning the battle to modernise before the last election.
The party finds it difficult to attract ethnic minority voters which it must do if it is to make gains in British cities. Lord Ashcroft's polling of 10,000 minority ethnic voters in 2011 uncovered a major problem among ethnic minority voters. Most still believed that the party was indifferent or hostile towards them.
Many black and Asian people still associate the Tories with tough immigration policies and racist views.
Labour's education spokesman, Stephen Twigg, said: "When a Tory councillor makes openly racist comments like these, it's no surprise people still think of the Conservatives as the nasty party. David Cameron must condemn his councillor's words and take immediate action against councillor Cherry to show that he will not accept racism in his party."
Labour MP Kate Hoey, who represents Stockwell, tweeted: "I invite cllr Cherry to visit Durand Academy in Stockwell to meet those who will be boarding. Stedham will gain hugely from their presence."
A Department for Education spokeswoman praised Durand's "rigorous curriculum, great teaching and sky-high expectations for all pupils" and said it had a superb record on helping disadvantaged pupils achieve excellent results.
"Durand's boarding school is a bold experiment and a chance to give inner city youngsters a truly world-class education," she said. "It is difficult to believe that anyone would want to obstruct such an inspirational project."