Plans for former St Cuthman’s school near Stedham

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CONTROVERSIAL plans to open a boarding school for inner city disadvantaged children on the former St Cuthman’s site are to undergo scrutiny.

The Durand Academy, based in South London, is receiving some £17m in public funding to carry out the project on the borders of the parishes of Stedham and Woolbeding and Reford.

But following a fierce campaign against the proposal, the public accounts committee, a group of MPs tasked with ensuring government achieves value for money, has agreed to investigate.

Objectors claim the school could become an ‘embarrassing white elephant of wasted expenditure’.

They also have many other concerns centred on the weekly transporting of some 600 children to and from the site along country lanes. The protest campaign is being led by a special working party set up by Redford and Woolbeding Parish Council which sent information to the government accounts committee. Now its chairman, Lady Hodge has asked the national audit office (NAO) to look into the department for education’s decision to provide more than three-quarters of the funding for the school.

In a letter to parish council chairman Anne Reynolds, she confirmed the NAO would investigate whether the department’s ‘investment decision’ was in line with ‘relevant guidance’, was ‘based upon an appropriate level of review’ and ‘included clarity by all parties on the risks of the transaction’.

“We believe Durand has significantly underestimated the operational costs,” said Mrs Reynolds. “The academy say they expect it will cost £700,000 a year to run but we have been given figures by a state boarding school head who says he believes there is a shortfall of £3,000 a year per pupil. He believes operational costs will be around £2.5m a year.”

“There are so many gaps in the existing evidence that the project presents a high risk of becoming a bottomless pit for rescue funding and ultimately unsustainable, leaving the newly-created South Downs National Park with an embarrassing white elephant of wasted expenditure,” said Ray Smith, a member of the parish council’s advisory group on the project.

A spokesman for Durand said it was making ‘great progress’ on the plans, which would ‘give children from the inner city access to the type of educational opportunity usually only reserved for the rich’.

“Our plans are carefully costed and robustly budgeted for and we look forward to submitting the final planning application early this year. The expansion of Durand Academy builds on the school’s track record of outstanding education delivery and efficient school building projects,” she added. “The first secondary intake is already flourishing at Durand Middle School, where children are benefitting from the continuity of all-through education and an extended day rich in academic and creative learning.

“We are always happy to show anyone around who would like to understand more about our innovative model and we have already invited Margaret Hodge MP to visit.”

A planning application for the former St Cuthman’s School is expected to be submitted shortly.