MPs to probe price tag of state boarding school

11th January 2013 at 00:00
Scheme for inner-city pupils will receive #163;17m of public funds

Bussing teenagers out of inner-city London to a new boarding school in a bid to improve their attainment is a bold experiment. And with Durand Academy in South London receiving more than #163;17 million of public funds to carry out the project, it is not cheap.

Now, before it has even opened, the school is to come under intense scrutiny from MPs, who will judge whether the money is being spent wisely.

The probe follows fierce local opposition to plans for the boarding school, which will be located in a mock-Tudor mansion in West Sussex, in the South Downs National Park. Opponents have said that the school will become "an embarrassing white elephant of wasted expenditure".

After being sent information by the parish council in Woolbeding with Redford, where the school will be located, the Public Accounts Committee - a group of MPs tasked with ensuring that the government achieves value for money in its spending - has agreed to investigate.

Committee chair Lady Hodge has asked the National Audit Office (NAO) to look into the Department for Education's decision to provide more than three-quarters of the funding for the school, which is due to open in September 2014. The Durand Education Trust - the charitable body created to deliver the project - will stump up the remaining #163;5 million.

In a letter to the parish council's chair, Lady Hodge confirmed that the NAO will investigate whether the Department's "investment decision" was in line with "relevant guidance", was "based upon an appropriate level of review" and "included clarity by all parties on the risks of the transaction".

The parish council has argued that Durand - a school highly praised by education secretary Michael Gove (see panel, right) - has "significantly underestimated" the cost of the project.

"There are so many gaps in the existing evidence that the project presents a high risk of becoming a bottomless pit for rescue funding and ultimately unsustainable, leaving the newly created South Downs National Park with an embarrassing white elephant of wasted expenditure," said Ray Smith, a member of the parish council's advisory group on the project.

A planning application to develop the site of the former St Cuthman's School in Stedham is expected to be submitted shortly.

Every Monday as many as 575 students from London will be bussed to what has been described as the first completely free state boarding school. After spending the week in Stedham, they will return to their families on Friday afternoons. According to Durand, they will receive "the highest level of academic, physical and personal development throughout the week".

But 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;2.7 million a year - well above Durand's estimate of #163;700,000 a year.

In June, the school told TES that it was committed to meeting its budget, which had been "carefully and rigorously calculated".

A spokeswoman for Durand said it was making "great progress" on the plans, which will "give children from the inner city access to the type of educational opportunity usually only reserved for the rich".

"Our plans are carefully costed and robustly budgeted for and we look forward to submitting the final planning application early this year. The expansion of Durand Academy builds on the school's track record of outstanding education delivery and efficient school building projects," she added.

A DfE spokeswoman said: "The Durand Education Trust has an excellent track record of delivering exceptional services for children, young people and the wider community. It is absolutely right that the Department should support projects such as this.

"This academy will give some of the most disadvantaged pupils in the country access to an outstanding education. The Department followed the correct processes when making this grant."

Praised by Gove

In September, Durand Academy opened a middle school in Lambeth, South London. It already operates an early years centre and a junior school. It intends to open the boarding school in West Sussex in 2014, on the site of the former St Cuthman's School in Stedham.

Durand Academy has been strongly praised by education secretary Michael Gove: "Go to Durand Academy ... where more than half of the children come from homes which are either eligible for free school meals or where the children have special educational needs. Every single child leaves that school at or above the expected level in English, maths and science," he said last year.

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