Buying into Brittany

26th May 1995 at 01:00
Schools are being invited to purchase shares in a residential study centre in France. Rick Rogers reports on an innovative and ambitious venture.

Residential study centres are having a hard time to make ends meet. Most have raised fees, reduced facilities, introduced more commercial activities, or even shut down as local authorities stop subsidising them, and schools and their parents find it increasingly difficult to raise the cash for school visits. Yet the threat to this long-standing educational resource has spawned a range of ideas to maintain, and even enhance, such centres.

The latest proposal is, in fact, an old one recycled but with some innovative twists schools getting together to run their own centre, this time in Brittany. Can it work in this new world of squeezed budgets and greater competition between schools?

Graeme Duncan, who thought up the scheme and has a background in the legal side of property investments, thinks it can. He wants to build a multi-purpose, residential study centre on land he owns on the southern coast of Brittany.

The Avelon study centre would be solely for educational purposes and non profit-making, he says. It would be built in a rural location between Quimper and Lorient, close to Pont-Aven. The proposed accommodation allows for up to 39 students and six staff or 41 students and four staff. Facilities include computer room, photo laboratory, painting studio, biology study room, library, reading room, games room, sports field and outdoor swimming pool. The centre is designed around a courtyard which can be used for exhibitions and displays.

Why Brittany? Apart from the fact that Graeme Duncan lives and owns land there, the aim is to offer an experience which takes in the economic and cultural life of this part of France.

There would be opportunities to share classes with local French schools. In addition, involving at least three European countries in such a scheme (Germany is a likely third partner) would attract potential grant-aid from the European Union, which would further reduce the cost of the venture and the shares available to UK schools.

In fact, Brittany is a popular location for such centres. Gavin Peck, former head of Plymouth Devonport boys' high school who is advising Mr Duncan, set one up five years ago for the use of his school and local feeder primaries. Nearby Torquay girls' grammar school did the same.

The Avelon centre would be an educational trust, owned by a French holding company, which in turn would be owned by a UK company. The idea is for a maximum of 25 schools to become exclusive shareholders in that UK company. Each school could buy a specific package according to how many, and which, of the 40 weeks a year it wished to use the centre. The other 12 weeks would be used to run art and language courses on a commercial basis, with the income ploughed back into maintaining the centre.

The cost of building the centre is estimated at Pounds 700,000. Each of the 25 shareholdings would cost Pounds 28,000. This might be reduced by up to 20 per cent, says Graeme Duncan, through French regional grant-aid which is being applied for. The maintenance charge, covering insurance, local taxes, management and other running costs is estimated at Pounds 500 for each week a school has bought into.

The variable cost of each visit would be charged on a per capita basis, and would cover food, linen, any special tuition and transport charges. To all this must be added the initial costs of buying into the scheme, eg solicitors' fees and the cost of getting to the centre (estimated by schools which already run study visits to Brittany at just over Pounds 100 per pupil). A school would not have to pay over any money until the centre was completed and all shareholdings had been reserved.

Shareholding schools would nominate directors to act as trustees to represent their interests in controlling the centre, agree the annual maintenance charge and produce an annual report. The centre's accounts would be audited by a local firm of accountants.

An on-site manager, to be Mr Duncan "for the foreseeable future", would look after the centre and handle such matters as bookings for the art and language courses involved. Mr Duncan says he would not retain any controlling interest in the centre.

The Avelon scheme is aimed largely at the independent and grant-maintained sectors. Graeme Duncan doubts that local authority schools will have the money to spare. Last February, he sent out a brochure, supported by Brittany Ferries, to 100 independent schools and a dozen GM schools in the south of England. So far, he reports, "about half a dozen are interested in principle".

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