Views sought on use of £10m former school by Dorset Council

Dorset Council wants to get the views of everyone across the county including people in Swanage, following the purchase of the former independent St Mary’s school near Shaftesbury.

Its idea is to use the site to create a school for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) but the council is open to other alternatives.


The chief executive of Dorset Council, Matt Prosser says that while the property is near Shaftesbury, the council really wants to hear from all communities across Dorset.

Preferred option is to use the site for SEND pupils

The council is obliged to hold a consultation and its preferred option is to use the site for children and young people with SEND.

However Matt Prosser said that the consultation is not just a tick box exercise and there are options for other uses, like respite care, training or an innovation centre for start-up businesses, possibly alongside the use of the site as a special school.

St Marys School Shaftesbury
Dorset Council

Set within 55 acres of grounds

The site comprises a main school building, assembly hall, large canteen refectory, many classrooms and small study rooms, as well as science laboratories, an art block and studios, all set within 55 acres of grounds.

While the school looks old is was mainly built in the early 20th century, with other newer additions. The most recent building on the site was completed in 2015.

St Mary’s was until March 2020, a girls’ Catholic independent school but had to shut at the beginning of lockdown. It then went into financial administration and the site was put up for sale by the estate agent, Savills.

St Mary's, Shaftesbury
Dorset Council

The building isn’t listed and there are many modern additions

Dorset Council bought the school for £10.05 million

Dorset Council bought the school for £10.05 million excluding taxes and fees in January 2021.

The funding for the purchase comes from Dorset Council’s capital budget, and the use of the site is expected to reduce costs elsewhere. Independent provision outside Dorset for SEND pupils is often around £60,000 a year, per place. This compares to about £22,000 for similar provision at one of Dorset’s special schools.

Accommodation block at St Mary's, Shaftesbury
Dorset Council

The site has several buildings with solar panels and a biomass boiler

“Save money in the future”

Leader of Dorset Council, Councillor Spencer Flower said:

“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.”

Meeting room at St Mary's, Shaftesbury
Spencer Mulholland
Swimming pool at St Mary's, Shaftesbury
Dorset Council

It has many attractive facilities

St Mary’s is a 40 mile journey from Swanage

However for parents with children with SEND in Swanage, Shaftesbury is hardly local. St Mary’s is a 40 mile journey from the town and takes just over an hour by car via the A351.

Dorset Council executive director of people, Theresa Leavy speaking at the council’s news conference said:

“Wanting to make sure that we have got enough ‘offer’ for all our children with additional needs across the county remains a challenge. We are looking at extensions in the east of the county and in the Weymouth and Portland area in the west.

“We are always trying to limit how far our children travel and I completely agree that from Swanage, travelling is only going in one direction and that’s extensive. So we absolutely look at that and we map very carefully where our children live and what are their requirements.

“…It won’t be buildings for everyone; it won’t be St Mary’s Shaftesbury for everyone but we are looking to make sure we have good coverage across the whole county. It (St Mary’s Shaftesbury) will certainly take some of the pressure out of the system.

“Our real target is to keep children in the mainstream with support. We know that is what children want – we know that is what families want. Where that is appropriate and achievable we are going to do everything we can to do that. Where children do require special education we want that to be as local as possible.”

St Mary's Shaftesbury
Dorset Council

“It isn’t just a tick box exercise”

The chief executive of Dorset Council, Matt Prosser added:

“We really do want to hear from all our communities, particularly families who have been affected and have got children with special educational needs and disabilities, to understand what their views are.

“…What do families in Swanage think about the school in Shaftesbury, because it is a long way away for them? But as Theresa Leavy has articulated, if it releases pressure in the wider system then that may open opportunities for them (Swanage residents) that previously didn’t exist.

“So we would really encourage your readers to give us their feedback – to give us their honest feedback about how we should use the site, so we can take it all onboard. It isn’t just a tick box exercise we do want to hear from community groups.”

Classroom at St Mary's, Shaftesbury
Spencer Mulholland

A classroom, just as it was left in March 2020. The independent school pupils had expected to return after lockdown

Complete the survey

It’s a short survey and there is space to comment on the use of St Mary’s Shaftesbury and on provision for SEND pupils in Dorset.

The consultation survey needs to be completed by 18th March 2021 and is available on the Dorset Council website

Further information

  • Dorset Council has created a question and answer document about the purchase of St Mary’s Shaftesbury on its website

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