After lengthy analysis, the top civil servant at the National Audit Office concluded that the UK Department for Education was too hasty in approving £17 million in funding for Durand Education Trust to create the first free state boarding school for London’s inner-city students. BBC’s Hannah Richardson reports that despite guarantees made by the DfE that money would only be made available when a full business plan was produced, the trust has already received more than £330,000 in startup capital in addition to £20,000 in monthly payments it has been receiving since May.
The letter from auditor general Amyas Morse and Chris Wormald, DfE’s senior civil servant, raising these concerns was first made public by The Independent newspaper earlier this week. In the letter, Wormald and Morse urge caution, saying that the Durand Trust plans lack robust long-term financial projections and until this problem is rectified, government funding should be halted.
The project aims to create a boarding school for children aged 13 and above linked to the successful Durand Primary Academy and new Durand Academy Middle School in Lambeth, South London.
Under the plan, the teenagers would be bussed from the Lambeth school, to board for four nights a week at the new school to be built on the site of a former public school in West Sussex. Unlike other state boarding schools, where a boarders’ fee is charged, parents will not have to pay a penny.
The letter’s authors weren’t the only ones to express concerns about Durand. Although the proposed school has won supports from all three prominent political parties, local residents fear that the school’s long-term financial viability is questionable and that public money is being used to create something that will inevitably become a local blight on the countryside. A former member of the West Sussex County Council resigned under pressure after voicing these concerns in terms widely considered to be racist.
In the letter to the permanent secretary, Mr Morse said: “I recognise that supporting innovative approaches to raising educational outcomes may require a higher than standard level of risk.
“Strong management practice – including appropriate planning and risk management – is also essential to ensure effective delivery of innovative projects and to safeguard value for money. In my view, the department currently lacks sufficiently robust estimates of the financial risk of this project. In part this is because full analysis of future operating costs and revenues has not been carried out.”
The current plans call for most of the funding for the new school to come from the DfE. The Department will cover £22 million of the projected £27 million building costs with the Trust itself kicking in the remaining £5 million.
The DfE said in a statement: “Durand is an innovative and inspirational project which has enormous potential. The National Audit Office is clear that it is satisfied that the procurement process for this project is robust.
“We will of course produce a full business case once planning issues have been resolved and the full scale of investment is clear. Only then will the money be committed.”