RESIDENTS can now have their say on the future of St Mary’s School near Shaftesbury, after Dorset Council purchased the site for more than £10million.

The authority’s preferred option for the site, which closed its doors back in July, is a school for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

However, the council wants to work with local people and groups to make sure this site benefits the community for generations to come.

Why a school for SEND pupils?

During a Dorset Council briefing last week executive director of people and children, Theresa Leavy, said Dorset’s special schools, albeit “outstanding”, are “bursting at the seams”, which is why more provision is vital for the county.

Project director Vik Verma said: “Increasing numbers of our children are often having to attend expensive, independent provision where our special schools are full. Many far out of county.

"Ultimately we believe it would be better for our children with SEND if they could be educated in high quality provision more locally and this is part of our children, young people and families plan to deliver the best education for all.”

Costly to build from scratch

With the potential for up to 280 pupils, chief executive of Dorset Council Matt Prosser said transforming the school would be “part of a bigger strategy” in providing specialist education and support for children with SEND.

He added that the value of building a school from scratch would be between four and six times the amount that secured the former girls’ school from the authority’s capital budget.

According to the council, currently around 3,000 pupils with SEND are supported by an Education, Health and Care Plan, but in 2015 it was less than 1,500.

Despite the building being just over the border in Wiltshire, the council says the project will help to reduce the costs of SEND education provision within Dorset.

Independent provision for these pupils costs around £60,000 a year per place. The council says this figure can be reduced to around £20,000 with the introduction of the new school.

Other options and concerns

Although the creation of an education provider for SEND pupils is the council’s favoured vision, the authority says it is also open to considering alternative uses for the site.

Other options considered for the site so far include a respite care centre, a training and conferencing suite and an innovation centre for start-up businesses.

Benefits of St Mary’s includes the size, installed solar panels and some modern rooms and features, but concerns were raised during the briefing for the council to consider.

These include accessibility, travel options to the site, and whether outdoor facilities like the pool and tennis courts can be used by the wider community.

'Opportunities like this for Dorset are very rare'

Spencer Flower, leader of Dorset Council, said: “We are very ambitious for this site and for our children and young people who have SEND. St Mary’s has amazing facilities and we believe it could be used to provide excellent educational opportunities closer to home.

“Pupils with SEND often have to travel far outside Dorset, as we do not currently have enough provision for them. This costs around £14 million a year, as buying independent, external provision is far more expensive. We believe creating a school with high quality facilities closer to home would be better for our children and young people and could also save money in the future.

“It is worth noting that opportunities to secure sites like this for Dorset are very rare. It would cost a great deal more, and take several years, to build such a wonderful facility like this from scratch. This is a clear example of investing to save. St Mary’s has been well maintained and has lots of amazing modern facilities."

For more information about St Mary’s Shaftesbury and to take part in the consultation before March 18 click here.

Get more Salisbury news or follow Blackmore Vale news updates here.

You can also like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter and Instagram to stay up to date.

Email with your comments, pictures, letters and news stories.