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 63.

    I am for this development. I would take it further though.

    Anyone who is making less than £14000 a year must send their children to these schools and they can't leave until they're 21. While they are there, they should be taught KS1 to the age of 8, KS2 to the age of 11, KS3 to the age of 14, KS4 to the age of 16. University education until the age of 20. Employment skills til 21. Job done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    This would not be the first state boarding school. The London County Council ran a state boys boarding school near Ipswich between 1951 and 1990. It was called Wolverstone Hall School. There's not much evidence of its existence online. There's a Wikipedia page on it and there's an alumni site. So, it's been tried before and found wanting, I imagine, as it closed down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I see problems coming here. 1. It will cost the taxpayer a lot and 2. Everyone will want it. Free childcare round the clock enabling parents to work longer hours/night shifts etc and free meals for teenagers? 3. Recipients of this largesse may be ostracised by their neighbours on the estates for being posh and 4. Why should the rest of us pay for it? Isn't state education suppose to be fair?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    So, the 'community' in which the potential students live has been laid to waste by...err - the community. With record single parent rates, poor attendance and attainment etc. and then the solution is to pour taxpayers money transporting that community into an environment that was deemed not viable for its original students.

    Confused and all a bit too PC for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    I live in Lambeth. I was fortunate to attend an amazing grammar school. Hubby attended the dire schools in Lambeth & wouldnt wish them on anyone. Durand is a successful primary looking to expand to secondary, it provides a beacon of hope to us that there is a worthwhile school developing nearby, which intakes like all others. It isnt selective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    re 41. 'where am I'.... dissing AS levels (do you know anything about them??)
    They were instigated by UNIVERSITIES so they could judge future undergraduates on how well they were coping with A Level work. The UNIVERSITIES want to keep them for the same reason and also because students can keep their education broader by doing 3 A Level plus 2 AS levels at the same time. They are a good thing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    £22m for 1 school when there are hundreds of schools across the country with leaking roofs and substandard equipment and there isn't a budget to fix them? And who will check that 'unqualified' teaching staff who move into posts without spending 4 years training, don't have 'ulterior motives' for suddenly wanting to teach (in a boarding school!) with potentially vulnerable kids? Shudder!

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The building being used was a boarding state funded special school closed by West Sussex County Council due to lack of funds but central government seem to have found the money to open it themselves

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Are these the same nimbys who opposed a Buddhist monastery being set up in the area 30 years ago? That monastery is now a part of the community. As someone who benefited from a boarding school education: under the old direct grant scheme: I wish them well and every success. I believe that this sort of scheme can be of huge benefit to underprivileged inner city kids. Give the kids a chance

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    It just sounds like a place for people who should not have had kids in the first place to dump the children they cannot afford to get them out of their hair while they laze about on the sofa during term time... on tax payers expense I might add.

    if such a place was to be effective, stringent rules will need to be in place into whose children are eligible for boarding schools in the first place

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Remember, Eton and Harrow were originally set up for poor children - that's why they're called Public Schools. But eventually the rich took over and now you're poor after you've paid the fees. Far better to spend money on decent day schools and stop meddling in the curriculum and other day to day stuff. Let the teachers do what they know beter than politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.


    Why is that because I criticise this Government you automatically assume that I think the previous Govt. were beyond criticism...???!!!

    New Lab were in large part incompetent, as were John Major's Govt. but neither plumbed the depths of rank incompetence that this dog of a Govt.....

    ....that is why I used "most" - it EXPLICITLY implies others are guilty too.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Sometimes a child is going to struggle to flourish precisely because of their circumstances at home so offering the opportunity to spend time away in structured and supportive environment could be life-changing. Christ's Hospital is a great example. The stories Lesley Newton (50) has read are based on experiences decades old: most boarding schools offer something that is completely different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Children spending nights nights miles away from home under the watch of ..who exactly? You only have to read biographies of those who went to boarding school (Stephen Fry etc) to see what goes on - another 25 years there will be a another inquiry and we will say this sort of thing must not be repeated - why do people have children if they don't want them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Who are the people making money out of the sale and refurbishment of a failed public boarding school?

    Obviously this is all in the public domain and there can be no question of impropriety on behalf of anyone in Government.

    Let's get some facts on who the main beneficiaries of this perceived waste of public funds are.

    Then we can decide.
    Otherwise it's like TV Series Waterloo Road made Fact??

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    it just so unfair. There is the life lesson in this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I would just like to ask the question: why is this government so hell bent on removing children from there parents influence. It's not like parents get enough free quality time with there children, not even just to enjoy the time they have together. Longer working hours, work from home, more homework, work work work. What we need is more free time with our kids, not less. - I know, I'm nuts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    This wreaks of political correctness....' let's send some black pupils from inner London and give them the boarding school education that the English aristocracy had...( Cameron and chums...) '

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Unfortunately the Inbetweeners have left school but I'm sure Mr Gilbert could get a job there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Is it surprising that this project scheme gets such funding when the Trust is supported by:-
    Michael Gove
    Vernon Coaker
    Rt Hon David Laws
    Plus a Knighthood for Mr. Martin.

    Must be great to have friends in influential positions?


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