Public Consultation Launched for St Mary’s School Site

Dorset Council have launched a county- wide consultation exercise following their multi-million pound purchase of St Mary’s School, Shaftesbury – but they made it clear their favoured option is an educational facility for children with special needs and disabilities (SEND).

The public have until midnight on March 18 to complete a short survey online or on paper by phoning 01305 225088.

Other options already suggested include:

  • A centre for respite care offering a mix of specialist care and accommodation;
  • training and conferencing suite by leasing the site to a third-party tenant;
  • leasing to an independent provider of special needs education;
  • innovation centre for start-up businesses.

Chief executive Matt Prosser said the council wanted to hear from residents, businesses, schools, service users and community and stakeholder groups across the county before making a final decision about the 55-acre site’s future.

But he stressed that the preferred option of quality special needs education made sense both economically and for the children.

In a press release the council said the number of children with special needs and disabilities had more than doubled since 2015, from 1,500 to 3,000.

Speaking during an online press briefing, Mr Prosser said many pupils were having to travel long distances to schools outside Dorset at an average cost of £60,000 per pupil.

This compared with £22,000 per pupil for similar provision at one of Dorset’s ‘excellent special schools’.

Costs have grown by around £6.7 million a year since 2015 and this year independent SEND provision is likely to cost more than £14 million,’ said the press release.

Mr Prosser said that although the council paid over £10 million for St Mary’s, building a brand new school would cost several times as much and take several years to bring to fruition.

‘This has massive potential for up to 280 pupils or possibly more,’ he said.
‘This gives us the opportunity to reduce our costs in the future.’

Commenting on the school’s location on the Wiltshire side
of Dorset’s northern boundary, he added: ‘It’s an opportunistic purchase. We didn’t get to choose the site but it has such valuable resources.’

Council leader Cllr Spencer Flower: ‘We are very ambitious for this site and for our children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities. St Mary’s has amazing facilities and we
believe it could be used to provide excellent educational opportunities closer to home. ‘We believe that creating a school with high quality facilities closer to home would be better for our children and young people and could also save money in the future.

‘Opportunities to secure sites like this for Dorset are very rare.
‘This is a clear example of investing to save. St Mary’s has been well maintained and has lots of amazing modern facilities.

Theresa Leavy, executive director for children, said that as well as classrooms, science labs, study rooms, assembly hall and canteen, those facilities included an indoor swimming pool, medical centre, library, drama studio, art block, gymnasium, sports hall, chapel, playing fields, sports pitches and former boarding houses.

The buildings had been well maintained and many were already adapted for people with disabilities.

Cllr Flower added: ‘We now want to work with local people and groups to create a great facility that will be a community and perhaps an educational resource for Dorset.

‘It’s a fantastic place set in substantial grounds of about 55 acres. It offers exciting potential for many other community uses too.’
The purchase is being financed from the council’s five-year capital programme, which is funded by a combination of government grants and money from the sale of assets.

Share your views on the proposed ideas by completing the survey here before it closes on 18 March 2021.

Dorset Council will carefully consider all views before we make final decisions.

By: Roger Guttridge

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