The Education Secretary Michael Gove’s department has been censured by public spending watchdogs over a plan to set up a state boarding school for inner-city children in the heart of the Sussex countryside.
In a letter seen by The Independent, the head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, has told the department it “lacks sufficiently robust estimates of the financial risk of the project”.
Mr Gove has been an enthusiastic supporter of the plan and his department has pledged £17.3million to the project to convert a former special school in Stedham, West Sussex, into a boarding school for 650 pupils from Stockwell in south London.
His officials were told the project would cost £22m – with the rest of the cash being found by the Durand Educational Trust. However, an independent financial analysis carried out for local villagers estimated that the cost could be as high as £46million.
The scheme is the brainchild of Sir Greg Martin, the head of the Durand Academy in Stockwell.
A summary of the Audit Office’s investigation sent by Mr Morse to Chris Wormald, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, says: “At the point which it decided to confirm funding [for the project in April 2011], the department lacked sufficient appreciation of the scale of financial and operating risk associated with the project.”
Villagers say the cost of converting the buildings has been underestimated. Melvyn Roffe, the former chairman of the State Boarding Schools Association and the head of Wymondham College in Norfolk, said it was “ludicrous” for the trust to say it could provide boarding facilities for just £1,100 per pupil.
Villagers will meet the Schools Minister, Lord Nash, today to discuss the project.
Sir Greg says the trust’s costings for the project are accurate. “Our teachers will only work a four-and-a-half day week with the pupils going home at Friday lunchtime,” he said.