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Meet the trusts pioneering state-run private special schools

Academy trust leaders pioneering new state-run, independent special schools have opened up about their plans, saying if they “get it right, we could save the sector millions”.

The Beckmead Trust and Discovery Schools Academies Trust are scoping out how they could open new private SEND schools aimed at disrupting the often for-profit sector, Schools Week can reveal.

The plans followed a Schools Week investigation revealing how firms backed by private equity investors and a Middle East sovereign wealth fund were making millions in profit from running such schools.

‘Transparent and ethical’ set up

Discovery, a 16-school trust including three special schools, is speaking to councils to try and get a guarantee they would commission places for five years for a school in the East Midlands.

The trust is still looking at funding with one option being a non-profit company to seek donations.

Another is to use trust reserves for the building. But, they are seeking government clarity as it would likely need Education and Skills Funding Agency sign-off as a “contentious payment”.

Chief executive Paul Stone said either way “it’s making sure the costs are transparent to everybody –

local authorities, other schools – so they can see we are not profiteering, it’s a fully non-profit making organisation.”

The government has failed to open enough state special schools to meet demand. Instead, it has been met by private special schools – who charge much more.

Councils spent more than £1.3 billion on independent special schools in 2021-22 – double the amount spent six years earlier.

Stone said placement costs are likely to be higher than a state-funded special school, because of higher premises costs, but it will be “tens of thousands cheaper per place” than private provision.

The average cost of an independent place in 2021-22 was £56,710 – more than double the £23,224 average cost for a state special school.

“If MATs across the country did this and did it on a transparent, ethical setup – we could dramatically put millions back into the education system,” Stone said.

“I think if we get this right, the independent sector should be extremely worried.”

‘Reverse tax-haven money flow’

Deputy chief executive Chris Bruce added it could also save councils money on transport, as children would remain in their local area.

If Discovery secures the council commitment and premises, they believe the school could be open within a year. State special schools can take years to open.

Tom Legge

South-east based The Beckmead Trust, which runs nine special schools, is another MAT looking to set up an independent provision.

A spokesperson said they are discussing it with trustees and “are at the scoping phase to see if we can draw up a tangible plan to open a school”.

The trusts are working with consultants Premier Advisory Group, which has informed government of its plans.

Tom Legge, PAG’s managing director, said the current system is “bleeding money out of the sector and into tax havens or overseas sovereign wealth funds”.

“This is not right and needs to be challenged and this is what we are doing… We are confident that, with the support of commissioners, MATs, morally-centred independent providers and central government we will be able to slow, then stop and hopefully reverse the flow of money out of the sector.

“This will create some space and budget for the sector to start to heal.”

Council procuring £20m school

Meanwhile in Wiltshire, the council is – for the first time – running a £20 million procurement exercise to open a 60-place independent special school for children with social, emotional and mental health needs this September.

The council is one of 34 with safety valve agreements, where sweeping reforms are made in exchange for government bailouts.

Under a maximum 10-contract, it hopes to reduce “expensive” independent special school spend. The council would provide grade two listed Melksham House on a peppercorn rent.

The provider must have expertise in running an Ofsted-registered ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ special school.

In council documents, Wiltshire said there will be a “rigorous tendering process and robust contract management” to ensure value for money.

Laura Mayes, education cabinet member, said: “This is the first time we have run a procurement exercise and while we are still in the process and can’t say a great deal more at this stage, it is important to add that our aim is to appoint an experienced, quality specialist education provider.

“We look forward to appointing an education provider who can maximise the opportunities of this beautiful setting and ensure school days work well for all.”

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