Council trumpets about the 'white elephant' in the room

15th June 2012 at 01:00
It warns of 'ill-conceived' plans for first free state boarding school

The bid by inner-city London primary Durand Academy to open the first completely free state boarding school in the country is nothing if not ambitious. It will bus hundreds of teenagers from one of the capital's poorest boroughs to a mock-Tudor mansion in the South Downs National Park every Monday morning. They will, according to Durand, receive "the highest level of academic, physical and personal development throughout the week", before returning home on Fridays.

Education secretary Michael Gove has even agreed to hand over #163;17 million towards the "exciting" plans. But TES has learned that two years before the school in Stedham, West Sussex, is due to open, it could be about to run into major problems. The parish council of Woolbeding with Redford, where the school will be based, has warned that Durand has "significantly underestimated" building and running costs, and fears it could be left with a "white elephant in a national park".

The school is now expected to have a headcount as much as 40 per cent lower than originally planned. The approved bid was for a 625-place 13-18 school. But Durand's director of education, Greg Martin, told a parish meeting that it is "much more likely" to end up with around 500 pupils. He also warned that if there was insufficient demand for post-16 places it could scrap the sixth form altogether, reducing the school's capacity to 375.

"We can speculate as much as we want, but at 16 children will have a choice about whether they stay with us for sixth form," Mr Martin told the meeting. "If the sixth form's not viable ... we wouldn't do it. It's as simple as that."

The boarding school is expected to cost #163;22.34 million, with the Department for Education paying #163;17.34 million over four years and the Durand Education Trust - the charitable body created to deliver the project - providing the remaining #163;5 million.

However, the parish council has calculated that, according to the DfE's average build estimates, the new facilities will cost an extra #163;11 million, not including redevelopment of the Grade II-listed part of the site. It has also raised doubts that the trust will be able to cover the school's running costs, which it says will amount to more than #163;1 million a year. Bussing pupils to the school, it calculates, will cost #163;350,000 a year.

The trust's trading arm, London Horizons, recorded a surplus of #163;350,120 in 2011, generated through property lettings and its health club.

However, a statement from the council described the plans as "ill-conceived", and claimed that the capital and operating costs had been "significantly underestimated".

A spokeswoman for Durand said that it was confident there would be demand for a sixth form. "It is of course not possible to predict exact numbers ... but we anticipate that parents and carers will embrace this outstanding opportunity all the way through to 18," she said, adding that Durand was committed to meeting the budget, which had been "carefully and rigorously calculated".

A DfE spokesman confirmed that, should the school not press ahead with the sixth form, its funding for post-16 provision would cease.

EXPANSION PLANS

The Durand Academy already operates an early years centre and junior school in Stockwell, South London, and it will open a middle school in the area in September.

It intends to open the boarding school in West Sussex in 2014, on the site of the former St Cuthman's School (above).

Durand hit the headlines in April when it emerged that the academy's trust had paid #163;152,000 to a PR firm (Political Lobbying and Media Relations) over a 13-month period.

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