Auditor warns over flagship boarding school scheme

Existing school building on Durand Academy's site for boarding school The upper school is to be built on the site of a former boarding school in Midhurst

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Ministers agreed £17m for England's first free state boarding school, for inner-city children, without looking at its long-term viability, auditors say.

The National Audit Office says the Department for Education approved funds for the Durand Education Trust plans in Sussex without fully analysing risks.

The DfE said funds would only be handed over when a business case was produced.

But the NAO said it had already granted £330,000 in revenue funds, plus nearly £20,000 a month going forward from May.

Start Quote

It is important to identify clearly the level of risk at the point of decision for a project”

End Quote Amyas Morse Comptroller and Auditor General

Concerns about the government's backing for the innovative but controversial scheme emerged in a letter from the comptroller and auditor general, Amyas Morse, to the DfE's most senior civil servant, Chris Wormald, seen by the Independent newspaper.

The project aims to create a boarding school for children aged 13 and above linked to the successful Durand Primary Academy and new Durand Academy Middle School in Lambeth, south London.

Under the plan, the teenagers would be bussed from the Lambeth school, to board for four nights a week at the new school to be built on the site of a former public school in West Sussex. Unlike other state boarding schools, where a boarders' fee is charged, parents will not have to pay a penny.

'Lacks robust estimates'

The scheme has much high-level backing and cross-party support, and the head teacher who devised it, Sir Greg Martin, was knighted in the most recent Queen's Birthday Honours.

But concerns have been raised about the financial viability of the scheme, by villagers living near the proposed site in Midhurst who fear the waste of public funds leading to a "white elephant" in the countryside.

The majority of the £22m building costs for the scheme is to come from the DfE, with the Durand Education Trust providing a further £5m itself.

In the letter to the permanent secretary, Mr Morse said: "I recognise that supporting innovative approaches to raising educational outcomes may require a higher than standard level of risk.

"Strong management practice - including appropriate planning and risk management - is also essential to ensure effective delivery of innovative projects and to safeguard value for money.

"In my view, the department currently lacks sufficiently robust estimates of the financial risk of this project. In part this is because full analysis of future operating costs and revenues has not been carried out."

Decision point

He added that although he felt the procurement process overseen by the department's funding arm, the Education Funding Agency, was "robust", it was limited to cover "the design and build of the facility".

Mr Morse acknowledged that the DfE would not release the full £17m it pledged in April 2011 for the scheme before planning permission was granted and "a full business case assessment". But, he said, "some financial exposure already exists ahead of the main capital investment".

"It is important to identify clearly the level of risk at the point of decision for a project, and for value for money to be thoroughly explored proper to the commitment of funds," he added.

At the point when the multi-million package was agreed by the DfE for the project, he said, it had lacked a "sufficient appreciation of the scale of financial and operating risk" associated with it.

However, discussions between the NAO and the DfE have led to an expansion of what the full business case will cover.

In a letter on the issue to the local parish council, Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge said: "It is clear to me that either the department has not kept sufficient records of the work it has undertaken on this project, or that it did not undertake sufficient work to have the full understanding of the project risks at the point it initially decided to award funding."

'Cost plan viable'

The DfE said in a statement: "Durand is an innovative and inspirational project which has enormous potential. The National Audit Office is clear that it is satisfied that the procurement process for this project is robust.

"We will of course produce a full business case once planning issues have been resolved and the full scale of investment is clear. Only then will the money be committed."

Durand Academy executive head Sir Greg Martin said his school had a track record in successful delivery of innovative education projects that raised standards and delivered lasting results.

"Innovation in education is never easy. But if no-one pushes forward, if no-one pushes the boundaries, we all end up standing still.

"This is a new model, but revenue forecasts, capital costs and savings plans for the boarding school have been examined in depth and approved by the school's financial advisers.

"The Department for Education has also concluded that Durand's innovative cost plan is viable - as reflected in the school's funding agreement with the secretary of state."

The NAO intends to carry out a full review once the business case is complete.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    We are paying for 77% of the project, do we get to own 77% at the end?

    If it turns out to be a failure you bet your ass we do, if its a success the £22m asset will round out Durands portfolio quite nicely.

    This is not about education its about giving away tax payer money to cronies for fun.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    As 80% of The Cabinet were educated in full or in part at the Fee Charging Elitist version of these and because this was of course paid for by their rich parents they probably thought it was free anyway!
    While we are at it why do state schools need a reduction of Summer holidays from 6 to 4 weeks when the average Summer vacation at Public Schools is 8 to 10 weeks?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Let's spend the monies on improving our already decaying schools rather than opening up another for a select few , plus we'll save a few quid on petrol.

    Better still spend it on the NHS and send the children to local schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Another half baked idea with some legitimate reasons for doing it. Thinking things through seems to be a failing of all governments who hold office for relatively short periods. Education needs to be in the hands of educationalists not short term politicians.
    Free boarding sounds suspiciously like taxpayers paying. I hope the staff are qualified social workers and motivated

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Not many schools can retain the services of political lobbying & well know legal firms

    In the current climate I find it a little strange that the Govt can magically find £17m to spend on the school.

    It would be better spent on local provision & the rest allocated elsewhere within the UK system e.g. schools which are literally falling down & improving support for those with special needs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    You have slept through the last 13 years of labour then. This shower may be inept, but the labour tenure turned out to be down right dangerous. It turned out the worst level of education in modern history by dumbing down, removing streaming, and other moronicies in some PC crusade. Assuring every child attained an A* to make themselves look better, now that was an omni-shambles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I live relatively near the proposed site, and my road is on the proposed bus route for the coaches taking children to the school. There is huge opposition to this scheme from people in the local area and I would be very surprised if the plans are granted permission by the local authority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    What is about this dog of a Government that means that they cannot get anything right, even when at the heart of their initiatives is a basically sound idea....????

    We have never had such an incompetent shower of (insert abusive adjective of choice) running the country.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Typical of the floundering government... no real idea of what they are doing, throwing money at half-baked schemes without coherent thought, yet failing to meet their duty of care to citizens, who are pushed into poverty through ill-considered 'austerity'....

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    So parents will willingly send their offspring to a secure children's home because that's what £17m is being invested in? I don't think so.

    It will become the dumping ground from the court system where lock-ups are harder to source for the under 16s near London.

    Better to give the local parents a grant towards established boarding schools than send money to a private company.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "Ministers agreed £17m for England's first free state boarding school... ...without looking at its long-term viability, auditors say"


    They want us to believe they've got a grip of the economy and that projects like HS2 are viable, it's all a CON.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    A lot of kids would benefit massively from being removed from their no-mark parents. Too many parents are failing their kids. Some of them need to leave it to the professionals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    But we can't have Boarding schools for Autistic Children or Others where the need is proven and the outcomes towards independent living huge because the cost is about £100k per year per child.

    Gove and the DoE need to get a grip adjusting SEN to exclude supporting these unfortunates is not cost sensible

    This is mis-allocation of resource big time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Typical Torys as lond as it looks good for a while(long enough to get them votes), they don't care how much money is wasted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Gove! His arrogance and inability to run his department in the best interests of children. The saga continues! The very concept of a boarding school =.'bad idea. If he had any comparison to draw from. If he had a single clue about the pressures of deprived children in inner city areas, he would drop this scheme like a bad habit. He is busy smashing the system apart. academies, free schools ect

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Why on earth should inner-city children be bussed miles into the countryside, other than for reasons of PC? What's wrong with educating them in local schools, and if these are full expanding provision nearby?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @myself 1-- Then I might be able to spell schools correctly!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The school was originally a State run local authority boarding school called St. Cuthman's which catered for children with special educational needs from across the local authority area (West Sussex)

    It was closed by the local authority on 31 August 2004, with 54 pupils on the roster and put up for sale.

    Local concerns are mainly based on NIMBY'ism but other locals wish the project well

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    So when are we going to find out exactly which cabinet members had links to the people who benefit from this ridiculous waste of our money?


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