Our ambitious plans have now been approved by Dorset Council Cabinet to open a new school with fantastic facilities which will improve the lives of Dorset children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and reduce future costs.

We're now going ahead with our plans to create a new school for around 280 pupils with SEND and a leading national centre of excellence near Shaftesbury.

Consultation on former St Mary's site

Dorset Council Cabinet carefully considered the views of local people in a recent consultation. The results showed that people felt the site should continue to be used for education. Following the survey, Cabinet decided to use the former St Mary's site to deliver high quality education for Dorset children and young people with SEND.

Thank you to the 1,427 people who completed our consultation. Find out more about the consultation results.

Read more about how our new school will improve lives and save money.

Read the results of our survey about the former St Mary's school site.

The background to the St Mary's site consultation

Dorset Council has purchased the former St Mary's School site near Shaftesbury. Opportunities to secure a site with these educational facilities and land are very rare.

Currently more than 250 Dorset children and young people with 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 more of our children to be educated closer to home.

We purchased St Mary's School for £10.05 million, excluding taxes and fees, so that it can become a resource for Dorset for generations to come. The site comprises 165,000 square feet of mixed-use accommodation set within grounds of 55 acres. It would cost considerably more and take years to build a facility like this to accommodate a SEND school or any of the other potential options from scratch.

The site at St Mary's has been purchased using money from Dorset Council's 2020 to 2021 Capital Budget. The purchase forms part of the council's 5 year £145 million capital programme which is financed through a combination of government grants and money from the sale of assets. The use of the site is expected to save significant revenue expenditure that would otherwise be incurred by the council.

What's at the St Mary's site

It is currently a large, well-equipped school. It's set within large grounds and has extensive educational facilities. The buildings date from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century. Despite appearances it's not a historic building.

St Marys Site Plan (002)
St Mary's site plan

At the site there is:

  • the main school building
  • an assembly hall
  • a large canteen refectory
  • many classrooms and small study rooms
  • science laboratories
  • an art block and studios
  • a music block built in 2003 with an auditorium
  • a language block built in the 1990s
  • conference facilities
  • a junior school built in 2000
  • a medical centre
  • a library
  • a drama studio converted in 1995
  • a gymnasium and purpose-built sports hall developed in 1992 with changing rooms
  • an indoor swimming pool complex built in 2006

There's also housing and outdoor facilities:

  • extensive living accommodation (former boarding houses) built since the 1990s and extended in 2011
  • staff houses
  • a chapel
  • playing fields
  • sports pitches
  • woodlands

St Mary's School site Shaftesbury

Inside a classroom (photo credit: Harvey Clark)

Inside classroom with grouped tables (photo credit: Harvey Clark)

Exterior view of classrooms (photo credit: Harvey Clark)

Outdoor seating area (photo credit: Harvey Clark)

Exterior of art block with accommodation above (photo credit: Harvey Clark)

What we want to create at the St Mary's site and why

Dorset Council's preferred option for use of this site is to create a new school for children and young people of Dorset with SEND. The reasons that we currently prefer this option are below.

A growing number of Dorset children and young people have SEND; approximately 3,000 children and young people who are supported by an education, health and care (EHC) plan. Dorset Council has a statutory duty to deliver educational provision for these children. While most 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. Dorset is fortunate to have excellent special schools, however we recognise there are not currently enough places for all the children and young people who need them.

Currently some pupils with SEND have to travel far from home and even live their daily lives beyond Dorset as there's not enough educational provision closer to home. This costs significantly more, as buying this external provision outside of our county is more expensive and of course, travel costs are much higher too.

This is why our preferred idea is to create a special school for approximately 280 children and young people aged from 4 to 19 years, which would be the centrepiece of a wider inter-generational campus offering educational and community facilities for Dorset children and adults. 

These proposals are part of our wider strategy to develop high quality education provision for Dorset children with SEND. This is in turn part of our wider strategy to provide the 'Best Education for All' Dorset children and young people. This is outlined in our Children's Plan 2020 to 2023.

What else we're proposing to do with the St Mary's site alongside our preferred option

We believe there are opportunities to create a campus of complementary facilities that could help some of our most vulnerable children, young people and adults. One of the key attractions of the St Mary's site is the amount of space, accommodation and the number of buildings available. The site offers a tranquil and welcoming space. 

This campus might include:

  • early years provision
  • residential care for some of our looked-after children
  • outdoor education
  • provision for young people with SEND to prepare for independence and adulthood
  • adult education

How children and young people will get to this new school, if it goes ahead

Dorset children and young people with EHC plans are able to access travel assistance in line with our policy to make sure 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 SEND.

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

Alternative use options for the St Mary's site

Whilst the creation of a school for children and young people with SEND to meet growing needs is Dorset Council's preferred option, we're open to considering the alternative uses for the site through this consultation. The council considered uses for this site such as:

  • a centre for respite care offering a mixed use of specialist care and accommodation
  • a training and conferencing suite by leasing to a third-party tenant to operate the site
  • leasing the site to an independent SEN school provider to operate
  • creating an innovation centre for a start-up business to promote businesses in the STEM sector

To date the council does not feel that the other uses set out would achieve the same advantages as our preferred option and support the economic, efficient and effective delivery of council services.

Assessment criteria and how we will consider your responses

When weighing up your responses to these options, before deciding which represents the most appropriate use of the site we will take into account, but will not be limited to the following:

  • it supports the delivery of council services to whom the council owes a statutory duty (for example, education provision) having regard to economy, efficiency and effectiveness
  • the efficient use of financial resources, in particular value for money
  • analysis of comparative need and demand in Dorset
  • the public sector equality duty
  • the extent to which any option will be consistent with adopted Dorset Council policy

St Mary's site consultation has now closed

We asked you to consider and comment on our ideas of alternative options or possibly a combination of options to transform and make full use of the site.

We'll let you know the consultation results as soon as they're ready.

Read more key information about the St Mary's site project.

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Read the latest newsletter edition about our former St Mary's site project.

St Mary's site Shaftesbury team

Email: stmarys@dorsetcouncil.gov.uk
Tel: 01305225088
Full contact details