In theory, it sounds like a brilliant idea. Take 600 inner city teenagers out of some of the most run-down council estates in the country, remove them from London gang culture – and educate them in a boarding school in the tranquillity of the West Sussex countryside.
All of this would be at no cost to their parents – making the school the first completely free state boarding school in the country. Backers have described it as the “Eton of the state sector”.
But The Independent can disclose that public spending watchdogs have been called in to investigate the scheme amid claims that the plan – backed by a £17.3m grant from the Department for Education – is massively underfunded.
Concerns about the financial viability of the project – which is being masterminded by the of head of Durand Primary Academy in Lambeth, south London – come after a local Tory councillor sparked a race row by expressing fears about the number of ethnic minority students who would be attending the school. Today it was announced that John Cherry is facing a police investigation for claiming that some nationalities were “uncertain” when it came to hard work.
But scrutiny of the project’s finances threatens to cause further controversy, with the National Audit Office now called in to investigate.
In a comprehensive dossier on the development, locals in the village of Stedham say the £22.3m stated cost of the scheme is a vast underestimate. They argue it will cost at least £30m – based on the DfE’s own average building estimates. In a remarkably comprehensive series of documents, they accuse the organisers of the project of vastly underestimating the cost of setting up the new school in an area of “outstanding natural beauty” where all new buildings have to conform to stringent planning requirements.
They have enlisted expert opinion from Melvyn Roffe, former chairman of the State Boarding Schools Association and head of Wymondham College in Norfolk, who says they have also seriously misunderstood the day-to-day costs of running a boarding school. Their estimate that it could be run for just over £1,100 per pupil per year is “ludicrous”, he told The Independent.
The villagers’ objections are also environmental. They are worried about an influx of coaches on their narrow, winding roads. Half a dozen will have to ferry the pupils from their London homes on a Monday morning and take them back again on Friday evening.
They are also objecting to the planning application for the school – on a site which housed a former special school that closed a decade ago but which had fewer pupils and will need extensive renovation to cope with its new charges,
“We’re just a hamlet of 151 people,” said Anne Reynolds, who chairs the local Woodbeding with Redford Parish Council, “so an influx of 600 pupils would quadruple the number of people living locally. We had a meeting to discuss it and 65 people attended – almost all the adults in the hamlet – and they were very concerned about it. If it doesn’t work out, we’re worried that it will be a ‘white elephant’ and we will be left with a building which is totally out of character.”
The Durand Education Trust – which already runs a successful primary school academy in Lambeth, south London, intends to launch the boarding school for 600-plus teenagers next year. Unlike other state boarding schools, parents and benefactors would not be asked to cover accommodation costs.
The plan has excited the juices of Education Secretary Michael Gove, whose Department for Education is backing it to the tune of £17.3m, which will go towards the cost of converting a mock-Tudor building on the South Downs into the new school.
Greg Martin, head of the Durand Primary Academy in London, dismisses villagers’ claims over the cost of conversion as “nonsense”, adding the DfE has scrutinised his costs and is happy with them. Durand is no ordinary state primary, having its own swimming pool and rented accommodation for its own teaching staff on the premises. It also runs London Horizons – a fitness centre open to the public which annually ploughs up to £350,000 of surplus into the school’s coffers.
The Durand primary has already won high praise from Mr Gove – who selected it as a showpiece for his education reforms when he sought to impress Washington education administrator Michelle Rhee, dubbed by some the “Witchfinder General” for the way she so efficiently weeds incompetent teachers out of the classroom, on a visit to the UK.
In preparation for the boarding school – due to open in September 2014 – Durand has already opened a middle school to take 11 to 13-year-olds to prepare them for the boarding school, although the villagers say this has not met with unqualified success as half the places remain unfilled.
Mr Martin says he is happy with recruitment and points out he only began to recruit in April last year and has 86 pupils. In the final analysis, he wants 125 pupils in every year group. Some parents, he argues, may be keeping their options open until the boarding school is up and running.
He is adamant the new boarding school will “change the lives” of the pupils who go there. “They will be taught in 25 acres of open countryside,” he said. “There’s a swimming pool, they will go back to playing real cricket, tennis – all this in the fantastic open air – and they will come back to London at the weekends.”
He has been discussing his scheme with Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, and said: “He offered valuable advice. I’d like to make it the Eton of the state sector. Who knows? We could play them at sport.”
It is the economic arguments, though, that the villagers believe are crucial to their case. Their dossier says the initial estimate of the capital costs was £22.3m – £17.3m of which would be supplied through a grant from the DfE. The villagers’ estimate of the costs, using the DfE’s own average building estimates, is that it would cost at least £30m and that Durand’s nest egg – London Horizons – would not be able to support that, thus raising the question of whether the DfE would have to increase its contribution.
On running costs, Durand’s estimates say they will be around £1,120 per pupil per year (£700,000 a year), which is at odds with a minimum cost of £4,156 (or £2.65m) indicated by Mr Roffe in his report. Durand reckons it can cut costs by staging a four-night-a-week operation – with the pupils going home on Friday afternoons – and insisting they take all their washing home with them instead of having someone employed to deal with it at the school.
However, Mr Roffe says it has failed to budget the increased cost of providing separate accommodation and staffing for boys and girls, the cost of returning boarders home in the event of sickness and grounds maintenance. “The level of extra-curricular provision and counselling support is also less than is likely to prove necessary,” his paper adds. “Don’t get me wrong – it is a great idea,” he added. “That’s why it’s so frustrating. I would like to see it succeed but on the basis of the costs they’ve come up with, the whole concept seems extremely naive.”
He said the Government had just approved proposals for an Eton-backed boarding academy which Eton has indicated would have to charge £12,000 a year for boarding fees. “The Government should be asking itself, ‘is Eton right or can Durand do it for a tenth of the cost of the Eton project?’. I know who I think is right.”
All this – coupled with the fact that the man appointed to head the boarding school left just a couple of months after taking up the job – have led opponents to conclude that Durand will struggle to run a secondary state boarding school.
As a result, Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Commons’ public accounts committee – which acts as a spending watchdog – has asked the NAO to investigate the project to ensure value for money. A spokesman for the NAO said a response was expected “very shortly”.
Mr Martin said he was “relaxed” about the NAO’s intervention – believing it would vindicate his costings. “You can’t compare us with other boarding schools who operate on a seven-day week,” he said. “Our teachers will only work a four-and-a-half-day week with the pupils going home at Friday lunchtime.”
Another hurdle the project has to clear is the granting of planning permission – not only does it have to be approved by the local authority in Chichester but also by the South Downs National Park Association, established in April 2011.
A DfE spokesman 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 like this academy which will give some of the most disadvantaged pupils in the country access to an outstanding education. We followed the correct processes in making this grant and we of course only ever award money which we believe will give value to the taxpayer.”
The outcome for the project is likely to be determined within the next few weeks.
Former Tory councillor’s ‘foolish’ remarks under police investigation
Police are assessing a former Tory councillor’s “thoughtless and extremely foolish” remarks about immigrant children hoping to attend the Eton-style boarding school. Sussex Police said they have received two complaints about comments made by John Cherry and that they are “currently assessing the remarks”.
Mr Cherry drew condemnation after claiming that Pakistani children would fail to “rise to the top” and some nationalities were “uncertain” what hard work is about. He warned that the children would want to “escape into the forest – it will be a sexual volcano”.
But after being heavily criticised for the comments at the weekend, Mr Cherry resigned from the Conservative Party and apologised.
Mr Cherry has said the comments were “plainly wrong”.