PLANS for a new special school for Dorset children at the former St Mary’s private school near Shaftesbury have been backed by Dorset Council.

Social services director Theresa Leavy says the opportunities for the site are ‘boundless’ and may be able to provide short respite breaks and a range of education and training.

The council intends to create a new special school for around 280 pupils after paying £10m for the school site when it came on the market about a year ago.

Education and young people’s portfolio holder Cllr Andrew Parry said the school site would be able to offer the place at a third of the cost and in a third of the time – he told Thursday’s Cabinet meeting that had the council decided to start a similar development from scratch costs could have risen to £50m.

Initial plans for the site involve providing education for Dorset children and young people with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) which will allow some, currently being educated away from Dorset, returning.

A consultation exercise showed over 90 per cent of the 1,427 people who took part asking for the site to continue to be used for education.

Cllr Parry said that Dorset Council needed to ‘be bold’ and press ahead with the proposals for the site which would create a new special school and save money in the long term at a time when demand for special needs education is growing and the county’s existing special schools are at capacity.

More than 250 Dorset children have to be sent away to independent special schools – at a cost of around £14 million a year - £60,000 per child, per year for independent provision, compared to around £22,000 for high quality provision at one of Dorset’s own special schools.

Director Aidan Dunn said using the site could avoid annual costs for the council of around £8 million a year.

The 55-acre site, which is just over the border in Wiltshire, will provide facilities for vulnerable children, young people and some adults.

Some places may be offered on the site to Wiltshire Council which Thursday’s Cabinet meeting heard, were supportive, of the Dorset proposals.

The site may also, in time, be used to create a learning centre where professionals from across the region, and possibly nationally, come together to learn, research and improve their practice. The centre could also be used to provide short breaks and respite care for vulnerable children and adults.

Cllr Jill Haynes said she hoped that the finances of the scheme would be monitored closely, possibly on a monthly basis, because it represented, in her words, “a severe financial risk”, to the council.

She also expressed concern about some items in the budget which did not show inflation – a position she described as unrealistic. 

FOLLOWING the meeting, Dorset Council issued a statement saying that the new school will 'improve the lives of Dorset children with SEND and reduce future costs'.

Cllr Andrew Parry, Dorset Council Portfolio holder for Children, Education and Early Help, said: “We have seized a unique opportunity to create something amazing for Dorset. We are determined to make Dorset the best place to grow-up by investing in forward thinking initiatives like this.

“The good news is that creating a new SEND school with fantastic facilities will not only improve the lives of Dorset children and young people, but will also save money in the future.

“Our ambitious vision will reduce spending in the longer term because it costs almost three times as much to send a child away for private educational provision. We currently have to do this because our own excellent special schools are over-subscribed. This site has wonderful facilities, it would have cost a great deal more and taken several years, to build such an amazing school.”

A wider ranging £37.5m plan to improve the lives of Dorset children with SEND and reduce future costs was also unveiled by Dorset Council last month. This funding has been secured for the next five years to help deliver projects like St Mary’s, but also to create more provision in existing specials schools and new hubs at mainstream schools.