Senior Dorset Council officers have explained their business case for buying St Mary’s Shaftesbury School.
They hope to offer education for up to 280 children, aged 4 to 19 years old, with special educational needs and disabilities.
The number of young people requiring these services has risen significantly. In 2015, fewer than 1,500 students used these services, while over 3,000 local children require this provision today.
Dorset’s special schools are costly independent providers or users have to travel out of the county. “We’re blessed with having outstanding special schools across the whole county. But they’re bursting at the seams,” explained Theresa Leavy, executive director of People and Children.
Officers presented their St Mary’s purchase as an innovative solution that could reduce costs for these services, which have rocketed from £6m to £14m annually. An external provider can charge around £60,000 per student but the council can offer special education services for £22,000 annually.
Council chief executive Matt Prosser said the decision was driven by pupils’ needs and Ms Leavey said there could be additional services for vulnerable children and young people at St Mary’s. “Maybe supportive employment opportunities, maybe some local holiday activity,” she said. “I think we could imagine that it might be possible to think about that site and the extensions on that site, as having some other complementary activities.”
The council has launched a consultation on its plans. You have until 18th March to tell Dorset Council whether you support their preferred use or whether you would rather they follow their alternative suggestions, which include a respite care facility, an independent school or a new business centre.
We asked Mr Prosser whether locals would be able to access tennis and pool facilities if the site is being used for vulnerable children. “We’ve got be mindful about our future uses of the site,” he said. “But if you know the site and the size of it, you’ll know that some parts are quite clearly easily accessible without actually compromising the use of the main school.”
We also asked the chief executive to address concerns that some of the 55 acres may be used for housing in the future. “If a part of the site was to be taken for a different purpose than our preferred option, we would have to go through a proper consultation process around that and also be talking with our near neighbour, Wiltshire, who is the planning authority.”
You can respond to the survey here until 18th March.