A sneak peek into St Mary’s Shaftesbury as it transforms into Centre of Excellence for Dorset with £10m SEND School


It’s the sense of calm that is most striking at St Mary’s Shaftesbury. The dinner bell is silent and poignant displays of artwork lie abandoned by pupils and staff who always expected to return to their much loved school. An old newspaper dated 4 March 2020 gives a sense of time stood still.

An old newspaper from March 2020 feels like a mark of time standing still.

But behind the scenes there’s a new energy at St Marys as the campus undergoes an ambitious transformation into a school and centre of excellence for children with special needs.

st marys Centre of Excellence for Dorset with £10m SEND School
St Mary’s School in Shaftesbury is set to be a Centre of Excellence for Dorset with £10m SEND School

“It’s not every day you have the opportunity to buy a purpose built school,” says Dorset Council’s Director of Education Vick Verma as I’m shown round the buildings. A cloakroom is set to become a sensory area and classrooms will on average have around ten pupils at a time. Some areas like the catering department will require minimal change. Dorset Council spent £10m to acquire the buildings and grounds and have allocated a further £5 million to adapt the campus. So why did the council spend so much money?

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Many children with special needs are unable to access the support they require to develop and are placed in schools outside Dorset. Each out of county place costs £60,000 on average but placements within Dorset are a third of that cost, making it more economical in the long term. A third of the children currently needing a SEND place live within a 45 minute drive of Shaftesbury.

st mary's school pupil artwork
pupil artwork still adorns the walls of St Mary’s classrooms.

However, Dorset Council’s plans go far beyond money. Councillor Andrew Parry explained: “We are a bold council, and St Mary’s is a very good example of how we have demonstrated that mantra. This is a fabulous place for children to learn and to gain skills to transition in to adulthood. I want families to have confidence and for young people to go on and thrive.”

A sneak peek into St Mary’s Shaftesbury

Phase one will see 60 children access the facilities from January 2022 as day pupils. Residential places will follow along with professional teaching and training for staff so the school develops a reputation as a centre of excellence. Vocational training in subjects like agriculture will be available to prepare young people for the workplace. There are places for 280 pupils when the school runs at full capacity. Existing head teachers are working in partnership with the project as St Mary’s will be one of the wider family of SEND schools in Dorset. An interim head teacher will take charge for the first year as it is vital to find the person with the best fit for the substantive role. Appointing an interim team and working in partnership on recruitment will also help avoid a brain drain from other local areas. A charity will be established to support some aspects of the school.

A sneak peek into St Mary’s Shaftesbury
The library at St Marys Shaftesbury is still exactly as the pupils left it in 2020.

“There’s real warmth within these walls,” says Theresa Levy, Director of Children’s Services at Dorset Council. It was a much respected school where generations studied and has a glittering alumni of former pupils.  It’s that warmth, energy and positivity that stays with me at the end of the visit. St Mary’s means a lot to people in the area but it is the new chapter in its history that is probably its most exciting. It is an opportunity for some of Dorset’s most vulnerable young people to learn and thrive and ultimately shape the future of special needs education -and inspire all of us as the alumni of the future.

by Rachael Rowe – http://rachaelrowe.com/


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