Scaled down: State boarding school planned in countryside for inner-city pupils drops sixth form for now

Durand Academy says it still intends to submit proposals for a sixth-form block at a later stage

Plans for a state boarding school for inner-city pupils in the heart of the Sussex countryside are being scaled down.

The Durand Academy, which wants to open the school on the site of a former special school in Stedham, near Midhurst, is dropping sixth-form provision for pupils from the original planning application.

The move is designed to give the application more chance of gaining the go ahead in an area of outstanding natural beauty -.

Villagers opposing the plans for the school - dubbed the state school "Eton" and supported by Education Secretary Michael Gove - say the move will still leave the school over budget - if the sixth-form plan is dropped and the school caters for 375 pupils instead of the original 625.

However, Durand Academy says it still intends to submit proposals for a sixth-form block at a later stage and is just removing them from the present application because more work needed to be done on them to make them acceptable.

Villagers claim that the revision to the planning application will make it less likely that Durand will meet their original deadline of opening the new school in September 2014.  However, Sir Greg Martin, head of the existing Durand primary academy in Stockwell, south London - from which the proposal stemmed, said: "We fully intend to have the first students on site by September 2014 but of course have contingencies in place for any slippage in the timetable."

He added: "Throughout the planning process Durand has been working closely with the local community and the South Downs National Park Authority to achieve the best possible secondary school application. Those detailed discussions are still under way.

"We knew we would have to work hard at this and we are now pushing ahead with final design tweaks to the main teaching and boarding accommodation before bringing the amended application to the planning committee as soon as possible."

He added that the project was only opposed by a "minority of individuals" who were trying to derail it.

If the opening is delayed, villagers say they have been told that Durand - which already operates a middle school for 11 to 13-year-olds attached to their primary school in Stockwell - could keep the pupils on in London for an extra year.

Last month the Department for Education was criticised by the National Audit Office for failing to do a full-cost assessment of the scheme when it earmarked £17.5 million to get the project off the scheme. Research commissioned by the villagers estimated the cost of the project could be double the £22 million figure put forward by Durand with Melvyn Roffe, a former chairman of the State Boarding Schools Association saying the estimated per pupil cost of £1,120 would be nearer £4, 156.  Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said in a letter to the DfE that the department "lacks sufficiently robust estimates of the financial risk of the project".

Durand said the pupils would only be boarding for four nights a week - as they would be bussed down on Monday mornings and taken home on Fridays.