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Key information about the St Mary's site

Find information about key points about the St Mary's site:

Why is a SEND school the Council's preferred option for this site?

Currently more than 250 Dorset children and young people with special educational needs or a disability (SEND) are educated in expensive, independent provision, many far out of our county. This currently costs around £14 million a year. Travelling far from Dorset is not always the best option for our children and young people and we want them to be educated closer to home. Dorset is fortunate to have excellent special schools, but they are full. There simply aren’t enough places for all of our children and young people that need them most.

A growing number of Dorset children and young people have SEND. Approximately 3,000 children and young people are currently supported by an education, health and care (EHC) plan. Dorset Council has a statutory duty to deliver educational provision for these children and young people. Whilst the majority of children with SEND can be supported in mainstream schools, such as local primary and secondary schools, there are some children and young people who need more specialist support and provision. This is why we think a SEND school is the best use of this site.

Why did Dorset Council pay £10.05 million for the property and grounds? What have you bought?

The price was based on evidence from previous market transactions. There is an active market made up of investors / operators in the school sector. Dorset Council took independent professional advice when determining the site’s value. It was a competitive process, there were several interested parties, as it is a fantastic building. The buildings date from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century - despite appearances, it is not a historic Jacobean period building. The building is in good repair, has been well maintained and has great facilities (165,000 square feet of accommodation) set within grounds of 55 acres. There is a main school building, assembly hall, large canteen refectory, many classrooms and study rooms, science laboratories, an art block and studios. There is also a music block with an auditorium, a language block, a lift, conference facilities, a junior school, a medical centre and a library. There is a drama studio, a gymnasium and purpose-built sports hall, changing rooms and an indoor swimming pool complex. There is also extensive living accommodation (former boarding houses), staff houses, a chapel and more. Outside facilities include playing fields, sports pitches and woodlands.   

What alternative properties were considered?

We looked at the potential of buildings and sites owned by the council, but none were suitable. Building a new school or adapting an unsuitable building would be very expensive and would take years. It is very rare to find a former school of this size for sale.

Couldn't you have repurposed an existing building that the council already owns to make a school?

We reviewed the buildings we own, but none were suitable or appropriate to be schools. Many had little or no outside space. Adapting an unsuitable building into a school would be very expensive, would take years, and wouldn't deliver the high quality provision we want for children and young people.

St Mary’s has great education facilities which are ready to be used, there is 165,000 square feet of accommodation set within extensive 55-acre grounds. The site has a main school building, assembly hall, large canteen refectory, many classrooms, small study rooms, science laboratories, an art block and studios. There is also a music block with an auditorium, a language block, a lift, conference facilities, a junior school, a medical centre and a library. There is a drama studio, a gymnasium and purpose-built sports hall, changing rooms and an indoor swimming pool complex. There is also extensive living accommodation (former boarding houses), staff houses, a chapel and more. Outside facilities include playing fields, sports pitches and woodlands.

How would children and young people get to this new school if it goes ahead?

Dorset children and young people with education, health and care (EHC) plans are able to access travel assistance (such as free transport) in line with our policy to ensure they can access education, unless they live very close to it. Even then, children and young people who live close to a school are also entitled to travel assistance, for example if they cannot walk to it because they have special educational needs and or a disability.

Find more information about who can get travel assistance on our school transport for children with SEND page.

Couldn't £10 million have funded a purpose-built site on council-owned land in a better location? This would have been fully accessible too

Building a new school was carefully considered as part of the business case and potential sites were reviewed. It became clear that building a school of the size in our preferred option would cost considerably more than £10 million. It would also take several years to create a facility like this from scratch and we need more provision for Dorset children and young people now. The St Mary’s site is pretty much ready to go. It is already a large, well-equipped school. It is set within 55 acre grounds and has extensive educational facilities within 165,000 square feet of accommodation.

What are the maintenance and running costs of a building this age? Won't the building will need lots of adaptations?

The site was a fully functioning school through to the summer of 2020. In preparing a business case full consideration was taken of its running costs based on previously audited accounts. The buildings date from the early 20th century to the 21st century - despite appearances, it is not a historic Jacobean period building. The main building is an early 20th century building, which is not listed, and incorporates later additions to the original structure. There are no specific or unusual operational issues due to the nature of the buildings on this site. The site in its current format is accessible, however minor alterations may be required to specific buildings on the site, but this will be dependent on the specific use agreed for the site following consideration and due regard to responses received following the ongoing consultation process.

Can we clarify the age of the property and the condition? Is it very old and costly to run, repair and maintain?

Most of the buildings on the site have been constructed in relatively recent years and the newest building was completed in 2015. All properties on site would be defined as modern buildings and fit for purpose. The main school building was mostly built at the beginning of the 20th century, but as stated there are many later additions. Contrary to popular belief it is not a Jacobean building, but a reproduction. The building has been well maintained and is generally in good repair.

Can you be clear about which SEND children the school would be for, if it were to become a school?

It is too soon to give any such details. In Dorset however, we do need more provision for children and young people with special educational needs and or disabilities, particularly for those with autistic spectrum conditions and social, emotional and mental health needs.

Wouldn't it be better to have better provision in mainstream education for children with SEND?

Whilst the majority of children with SEND can be supported in mainstream schools, such as local primary and secondary schools, there some children and young people who require more specialist support and provision. Dorset is fortunate to have excellent special schools and academies, however we recognise there aren’t enough places for all of the children and young people that need them most.

Will Dorset Council be borrowing money to pay for this? If so, over how many years will Council Tax payers will be repaying this?

The site at St Mary’s has been purchased using money from Dorset Council’s 2020/21 Capital Budget.

The purchase forms part of the council’s five year £145million capital programme which is financed through a combination of Government grants, loans and money from the sale of assets.

If, as proposed, the site is opened as a school then the cost of running the school, including the capital financing cost, would be funded nationally from central government’s education budgets to support children and young people with SEND, not from local Council Tax budgets.

If however following receipt of consultation feedback an alternative use for the site is considered more appropriate, this would have a variety of financial implications depending on that use.

St Mary’s is not in Dorset, it is in Wiltshire. Will Council Tax payers in Dorset therefore be paying Council Tax to Wiltshire Council?

The future use of the site will determine the level of Council Tax and business rate charges which are applicable. These are always paid to the local authority in which any rateable premises are situated. In this case, if these plans were to go ahead, that would be Wiltshire Council. If the site were to operate as a school then these Council Tax and business rate charges would be funded from education budgets and not local Council Tax budgets. If another alternative option for use of the site is pursued this could have a variety of budgetary implications.

Dorset Council plans to consult after purchase. What input have elected members had in this decision? What opportunities have residents had to consult before purchase?

Dorset Council’s Cabinet received an exempt report and business case about purchase and the range of options for use including the preferred option which they discussed at meetings on 8 and 14 December 2020 before councillors took the decision to purchase. That decision to purchase had to be made swiftly in order to take advantage of the opportunity in face of other competitive offers for the property. Public consultation on the range of ideas and options for use, including the council’s preferred option will begin on 4 February 2021.

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