By Megan Welford
The National Audit Office has confirmed it has asked for more detail on how the Durand Academy in Stockwell will finance its boarding school in rural West Sussex – planned to be the first free-for-parents boarding school in the country.
Parish councillors in Woolbeding with Redford, near Midhurst in the leafy South Downs, questioned the school’s financial plan after the Department of Education promised a £17 million grant for the project, which they say will leave a shortfall of £25 million for the building alone, let alone the running costs.
The Durand Academy plans to begin bussing pupils aged 13-18 from its Hackford Road site to the listed former hospice in West Sussex from September 2014, where they will board from Sunday evening to Saturday morning.
All other state funded schools in the country, of which there are 38, charge fees of between £8-£12,000 per pupil per year, paid by parents or other bodies, but Durand proposes to be the first free state boarding school by using funds from its London Horizons company, comprising a gym and accommodation on Hackford Road.
But the Woolbeding councillors say Durand have vastly underestimated their costs.
Chair of the Woolbeding and Redford parish council Anne Reynolds wrote to the DoE saying: “The continued claim by Sir Greg Martin [Durand’s executive headteacher] that boarding costs is possible for just £1300 per pupil per year is just so ludicrous that we are completely baffled as to why this has not been properly challenged.”
Ms Reynolds says the costs for bussing the pupils alone, from Stockwell to West Sussex every Friday night and Monday morning based on a quote from a ‘reputable coach company’ would be £726 per pupil per annum, over half the yearly allowance.
Steering committee member Alasdair Nagle told the Weekender: “The usual DoE grant for a school would cover daytime costs but the school would have to pay for night time – supervision, food etc. They are proposing Newly Qualified Teachers to save money but that’s a fundamental mistake – you need experienced staff for secondary, mixed boarders.”
The parish council objects to the plans because of transport and access issues, according to Mr Nagle the roads are too narrow for coaches, and for environmental reasons, in which they are supported by the National Trust.
Mr Nagle said: “They have estimated it will cost £22million to build the school, for which they have the provisional grant of £17.3million, but we commissioned a surveyor who costed it at £48-49 million. They have underestimated the extra costs coming from local planning restrictions.”
A spokesperson for Durand said: “This is a new model, but revenue forecasts, capital costs and savings plans for the boarding school have been examined in depth and approved by the school’s financial advisers. The Department for Education has also concluded that Durand’s innovative cost plan is viable – as reflected in the school’s funding agreement with the Secretary of State.”
The NAO confirmed it was conducting a ‘short investigation’ into the Durand Education Trust’s ability to meet its financial contribution towards the building of the school and about the level of running costs once it opened. A spokesperson said: “It doesn’t mean it’s not viable. The Department of Education will undertake a full assessment ahead of contributing financial support.”