Marathon bid receives jackpot windfall

29th November 1996 at 00:00
As the Arts Council unveils a Pounds 20m lottery bonanza one school is celebrating a record windfall of Pounds 3.9m

To collect Pounds 4 million from the National Lottery a jackpot winner needs 30 seconds in a newsagent's and an enormous amount of good luck. To earn a comparable windfall for Dormston School, headteacher Barbara O'Connor and her lottery team persevered through almost two years of lobbying, market research and cash-flow projections.

Champagne corks popped at Dormston in Sedgley, near Wolverhampton, in August, following the announcement that it was to receive the largest lottery grant allocated so far to a school.

And last week the methodical determination shown by the Dormston team, led by Mrs O'Connor and Lindsay Newton, arts and media adviser with Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, earned the school a visit from the Heritage Secretary, Virginia Bottomley.

The Arts Council is contributing Pounds 2.9m and the Sports Council Pounds 1m towards the Pounds 5.5m cost of building a 350-seat theatre, a two-storey art gallery and a sports hall on Dormston's 59-year-old site.

The Dormston bid illustrates why the Arts Council reminds schools that large-scale lottery applications must be approached as a marathon, not a sprint.

Plans to build a community theatre and sports facility at the 1,100-pupil mixed comprehensive began taking shape in 1993, a year before the National Lottery started operating.

"The school and the surrounding area urgently needed a sports hall and a proper performance space for music, dance and drama," says Mrs O'Connor, head of Dormston since 1983. "We submitted a 2,000-signature petition calling on Dudley Council to help. They gave us their support, but, inevitably, said there was not enough money available."

A bid for European Union funding fell at the first round. The Foundation for Sport and the Arts was more amenable, eventually pledging Pounds 75,000; but it was only when lottery application packs became available late in 1994 that the plan started to gather momentum.

"With no precedents to go on, we decided to focus on two things which I believe hold true for every lottery bid," explains Mr Newton. "Firstly, you need a champion, who everybody associates with your project - and we had Barbara. Secondly, you must get as many individuals and groups as possible on your side before applying."

Mrs O'Connor "networked" vigorously, organising special meetings of arts and sports clubs to raise awareness of Dormston's plans. She found enthusiasm wherever she turned, and when it emerged that the area was crying out for an art gallery, the scheme was expanded to include one. "Tailoring the bid to the needs of the community could only increase the public benefit that lottery projects must generate," said Mr Newton.

The pair gained invaluable guidance, free of charge, from Philip Thompson, lottery officer with their regional arts board, West Midlands Arts. However, while some schools are now receiving up to Pounds 45,000 from the lottery to pay for feasibility studies prior to submitting bids, in 1995 no such funds were available.

So to help them provide evidence that local residents would use the proposed facilities, they decided to use surplus revenue from Dormston's extremely popular adult education programme to commission a market research project. "We paid a firm Pounds 7,000 to survey people within a five-mile radius of the school and were staggered by the level of demand," said Mrs O'Connor.

They worked with an accountant on two business plans, providing details of opening hours (8.00am to 10.00pm, seven days a week for the sports hall), badminton court charges, salaries for staff, and projected cash flow over five years.

Dudley Council pledged Pounds 250,000 in partnership funding, and all the signs were that the Pounds 3m scheme submitted to the Arts and Sports Councils in May 1995 would be approved. Then, last December, the Arts Council rejected the design produced by the local education authority architect. "It was desperately disappointing, but we were not going to give up," Mrs O'Connor recalls.

She and Mr Newton interviewed four internationally renowned firms of architects recommended by the Arts Council, eventually offering the project to Oxfordshire-based Maguire and Co, whose client list includes the Queen.

Robert Maguire decided to increase the theatre capacity from 250 to 350 (a crucial figure because major professional touring companies are reluctant to play venues with fewer than 350 seats) and added a hydraulic orchestra pit. The revised scheme, now costing Pounds 5.5m, was submitted in April this year and approved in August.

Dormston's governors, who will have overall responsibility for the complex, have allocated Pounds 200,000 from school reserves, and less than Pounds 100,000 of the partnership funding still needs to be raised. Construction is due to begin next summer and the centre should open in autumn 1998.

Mrs O'Connor and Mr Newton are now much in demand as lottery "consultants", making presentations to bodies such as the Royal Institute of British Architects. With a giant Arts Council "cheque" for Pounds 2.9m propped up beside her desk, Mrs O'Connor seems perfectly entitled to reflect on a job well done.

"The hard work put in by everybody involved in the bid means Dormston will gain a great deal from these facilities. But we will be just one of the centre's customers. There are 43,000 pupils within Dudley LEA. They and the whole community in and around Sedgley will all benefit, too."

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