Will Durand's 'Eton-style' boarding school for state pupils ever materialise? | Fiona Millar

Questions hang over the proposed boarding academy about its financial viability and its benefit to children

It has been dubbed the Eton of the state sector, a "Harry Potter" type school nestled in the South Downs, aimed at giving a public school boarding education to some of London's most disadvantaged children. But less than three months before the Durand Boarding Academy is due to open its doors in the sleepy West Sussex village of Stedham, confusion surrounds the long-term future of what has been called one of Michael Gove's pet projects.

Refurbishment of the site, which should be home from September to a year-8 cohort currently at Durand's middle school in South London, does not appear to be under way. Classroom blocks are without roofs; there are rumours that the buildings have limited water supply, and local concerns about sewage treatment. The only functional part of the property is a Grade II listed Norman Shaw country house which, according to local residents, can at best house around 50 pupils if it is to accommodate teaching and boarding provision under current government guidelines.

Driving through the narrow winding lanes that lead to the picturesque setting for the new school, it is easy to see why offering children from urban Stockwell the type of privileged rural boarding experience usually reserved for the offspring of the affluent has caught the imagination of the media and politicians.

Durand's London primary school has above average numbers of pupils eligible for the pupil premium. The school's most recent Ofsted report, which downgraded it from "outstanding" to "good", notes that the majority of its pupils are of black Caribbean or black African heritage and reach standards that are well above the national average by the time they leave.

At the time of the site's purchase in 2011, Durand's director of education, Sir Greg Martin, said his plan to provide weekly boarding provision for children aged 13-18 would "get pupils away from hanging around the streets of Brixton and Stockwell, where we have stabbings and a constant threat of trouble."

Michael Gove claimed the project, which involves bussing pupils by coach from Stockwell to Stedham either for a Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday week, would ensure that young people in Lambeth could enjoy an education "every bit as effective as any private school."

But the reality of delivering on this ambitious goal seems a world away from the original ideal. The early plan was for 600 weekly boarders, including a sixth form. It was granted £17.3m by the Education Funding Agency and building contracts were procured.

Local residents have fiercely resisted the plan, challenging the costs of converting what was previously a small SEN school, the practicality of transporting hundreds of pupils from London at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning in deepest winter, and the long-term financial viability of the project, which they claim may result in a white elephant at the heart of their community.

And the National Audit Office and the House of Commons public accounts committee have expressed concerns about the strength of the boarding project's financial planning. The auditor general, Amyas Morse, last year wrote to the DfE permanent secretary suggesting that the department lacked "sufficiently robust estimates of the financial risks of the project".

Durand subsequently agreed to postpone its sixth form and concentrate on 375 year 9-11 year pupils. Then, in December last year, planning permission for the rebuild was thrown out by the South Downs National Park Authority. An appeal was lodged last week. Durand declined to answer our questions asking for more detail about the extent of the current refurbishment of the site and the cost, but Martin says: "In the next academic year 9, children will start to experience boarding at the site in the main house, whilst also still having access to swimming at the Durand site in Stockwell. Contingencies have been considered and are in place." He adds that that the project will "one day be a source of great pride to the local community".

But Anne Reynolds, chair of the local Woolbeding with Redford parish council, says: "As far as we can see there is no evidence that this project will improve the pupils' chances. Inner London schools are doing much better than many rural schools. As a taxpayer, I find it quite shocking that so much money could be committed without any evidence. And we still haven't been informed about what will happen in September. From the start, the project has lacked transparency and openness."

Perhaps the most contentious issue is Durand's claim that it is possible to provide high-quality boarding education and transport without charging any fees. There are currently 38 state boarding schools in England. Government funding covers their core day education provision, usually between 9am and 4pm, in the same way as for other state schools.

Most state boarding schools charge fees of between £8,500 and £13,500 to fund boarding costs. The DfE provides guidelines on how schools should calculate these costs, which cover everything that is not covered by education funding and would include specialist staff, pastoral care, extra-curricular activities, food, TV, telephones, laundry and so on. 

In the Durand academy's funding model, which Martin claimed on Friday was "rigorously planned", the boarding costs will be slashed to £2,051 a year because educational hours will run from 8:15am to 9:30pm and be cross-subsidised from the school's general academy grant, pupil premium income and possibly a further subsidy from the profits from London Horizons, a leisure centre and student accommodation Durand owns in Lambeth, which last year generated profits of £500,000 and was recently the subject of controversy owing to its relationship with Martin's private consultancy, GMG Ltd.

But state boarding school head Melvyn Roffe, of Wymondham college in Norfolk, has challenged the Durand plan in a letter to the schools minister Lord Nash. He claims the Durand figure is "implausibly low", lacks clarity about staff accommodation and salaries and fails to take into account the impact of spreading the school's budget thinly across such an extended day.

"If we were allowed to do the same at Wymondham college, we would soon see a significant impact on our positive outcomes for students due to larger class sizes, constrained curriculum choice and reduced support available," he says.

Roffe also warns against an assumption that boarding provision is right for all children, especially those from vulnerable backgrounds: "There is provision to fund free places for children in the state boarding sector but we make a very careful judgment about whether a child is suitable to board, will benefit and whether there are any safeguarding issues.

"These schools are well established, mainly 'good' or 'outstanding', and know what they're doing. Therefore, for the children, they have none of the risks associated with being part of an untried experiment. A better use of public money might be to allocate children from Durand to places that already exist and invest in those schools instead".

So the "Eton-style" education seems remote. Lambeth council's own figures suggest that Durand's current years 7 and 8 are only half full and a spokesman for the council confirmed that if necessary it would ensure all pupils have appropriate secondary school places in September.

The DfE remains tight-lipped about the longer-term prospects: "Durand academy has lodged a planning appeal and we await the outcome of that hearing with interest. We continue to support this innovative and inspiring proposal which will provide a unique educational opportunity for inner-city children, subject to the normal checks."

But the shadow schools minister, Kevin Brennan, questions whether that is good enough: "We need transparency about this project to make sure that public money is being used wisely, that there are no financial conflicts of interest and, most importantly, that the welfare of the children is the paramount influence on any decision on whether to open this boarding provision in September. The DfE and sponsors need to provide absolute assurances about this, and answer any questions from parents and others fully and frankly."


Fiona Millar

The GuardianTramp

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