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St Mary's school shaftesbury
St Mary’s school at Shaftesbury.

Dorset Council has unveiled ambitious ideas to transform the St Mary’s school site near Shaftesbury, potentially providing better educational opportunities for Dorset children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

The council recently bought the site for just over £10 million after the former Catholic boarding school for girls went into administration and closed.

Dorset Council now says it wants to work with local people to create a new school which it hopes will be the ‘centrepiece of a wider campus offering excellent educational and community facilities for Dorset children and adults’.

Local people, community and stakeholder groups are being asked to examine the proposed plans and share their views when a public consultation starts on 4 February. All views will be carefully considered before final decisions are made, the council says.

Councillor Spencer Flower, Leader of Dorset Council, said: ‘We are very ambitious for this site and for our children and young people who have special educational needs (SEND). I’m pleased that we have been able to secure St Mary’s so it can remain a resource for our communities and benefit the people of Dorset for generations to come. Importantly this move could also save revenue expenditure in the longer term.

‘Currently pupils with special educational needs often have to travel far outside Dorset, as there is just not enough educational provision closer to home. This is not good for Dorset children and young people. It also costs significantly more, as buying this external provision outside of our county is more expensive and travel costs are much higher too. It is also 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, fitting with the ethos of being a bold and ambitious council

‘We now want to work with local people and groups to create an amazing facility that will be a community and educational resource for people in Dorset of all ages. It is a fantastic facility set in substantial grounds of about 55 acres. This offers exciting potential for many other community and service uses too, which we will be exploring in partnership with local people and community groups, so together we can get the maximum benefit from this investment in the interest of Dorset residents.’

The former St Mary’s School site has 165,000 square feet of mixed use accommodation set within grounds of 55 acres.

It is suitable for a broad range of services and community uses, which could also include provision for Dorset children with special educational needs and disabilities, supported living for care leavers, provision for adults with educational needs and disabilities, as well as a possible site for businesses to boost the local economy and much more besides, the council says.

Dorset Council says it is committed to ‘working with local people and community groups to get the mixture of activity right to maximise the investment’.

A growing number of Dorset children and young people have special educational needs and disabilities, and Dorset Council has a statutory duty to deliver educational provision for them.

The funding for the purchase of the St Mary’s site has come from the council’s capital budget, and the use of the site is expected to offset revenue expenditure that would otherwise have been incurred elsewhere by the council.

Dorset Council will be providing further details of its vision and preferred options for the site when the consultation launches on 4 February. Dorset Council says it is committed to ‘listening to people’s views, taking them into account where possible and progressing the project in partnership with our community’.

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