State boarding plans 'on shaky ground'

Leading head attacks academy venture but Durand insists it is sound

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Using pound;17 million of government cash to bus hundreds of teenagers from inner-city London to a school in a mock-Tudor mansion in the South Downs was always going to be a contentious move.

And the Durand Academy's plans to open a state boarding school in the village of Stedham, West Sussex, hit the headlines again this week when local Conservative councillor John Cherry claimed that the project would be "spoiling a tranquil place" by "bringing Brixton to the countryside" and warned that a "sexual volcano" would ensue. Mr Cherry has since resigned and is being investigated by Sussex Police over his comments.

The controversy over the school rages on, however, with the head of the largest state boarding school in the country becoming the latest figure to wade in to the row. Melvyn Roffe, principal of Wymondham College in Norfolk, has claimed that the project is based on "shaky" figures and fails to meet several legal requirements for facilities and student support.

Durand has claimed that the new school's 575 students will receive "the highest level of academic, physical and personal development", but Mr Roffe, former chairman of the State Boarding Schools' Association, told TES that the plans "take no account of the likely levels of behavioural, social and emotional needs that boarding students may present".

"I have not seen evidence that proves all of the money they have spent has been properly considered," he said. "I wouldn't be satisfied in my school with that level of support for students, and my students are from far less deprived backgrounds."

According to Durand, the scheme will cost pound;22 million, with the school stumping up pound;5 million towards the costs. But last year TES reported that Woolbeding with Redford Parish Council had calculated that the project would be at least pound;11 million over budget. Ray Smith, a member of the council's advisory group on the project, said it risked becoming "an embarrassing white elephant of wasted expenditure".

In January, it emerged that the National Audit Office was also investigating the plans to see whether the Department for Education's investment was "based upon an appropriate level of review" and "included clarity by all parties on the risks of the transaction". Its report is expected to be published imminently.

The DfE has insisted that it followed the "correct processes" in allocating funding, and said the academy "will give some of the most disadvantaged pupils in the country access to an outstanding education".

But Mr Roffe said that the "evidence (for funding the project) is not there". "It's incredible that we have got to this stage and no one has answered these questions," he added. "No one in the government seems to have asked the questions."

Mr Roffe also estimated that its running costs would be around pound;2.5 million a year - well above Durand's pound;700,000 estimate. And he raised concerns that the plans failed to meet several of the DfE's national minimum standards for boarding schools, including requirements that students have access to local facilities and a "range and choice of safe recreational areas".

But Durand has defended its plans. Executive head Greg Martin told TES that the national minimum standards "will be met at all times". "The school we are developing has a different education, finance and staffing model to Wymondham, but it shares a commitment to outstanding teaching, rich learning and broad social experiences," he said.

Durand has been working to "carefully develop and cost the plans for the boarding school", he added. "We are confident our financial model is robust," he said.

`A wonderful job'

Durand Academy is based in Stockwell, southwest London. The school operates early years, junior and middle school sites, and in 2010 became one of the first primary academies.

The following April it received the go-ahead to open the secondary state boarding school in West Sussex, meaning that it will provide all-through, 3-18 provision.

Michael Gove described Durand as an "outstanding school doing a wonderful job for children in one of London's most challenging neighbourhoods".

Photo credit: Cabinet officeFickrCrown copyright.

Original headline: State boarding plans `built on shaky financial ground'

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