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New special school for Okehampton planned

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A new £8 million special school is being planned for Okehampton.

The school, which would accommodate up to 100 primary and secondary pupils, would be built on the East Okehampton Business Park.

Devon County Council’s Cabinet is being asked to approve spending £8 million on building the school at its meeting next Wednesday.

The Cabinet will also be asked to begin the process of advertising for an academy sponsor to run the school.

It is intended that the school will be open by September 2023 at the latest, subject to planning.

It will cater for children with social, emotional and mental health needs and those on the autism spectrum.

Councillors will hear that Devon has already opened new special schools in Tiverton and Newton Abbot and expanded schools in Exeter and North Devon. But demand for places is still exceeding supply.

And pupils from the wider Okehampton area who need special education often have to travel to North Devon or Exeter.

Devon County Council’s deputy leader and Cabinet member for schools, James McInnes, said the school would be part of a £20 million programme to deliver up to 300 additional places for vulnerable children.

That was on top of the 300 extra places that had already been provided over the past three years.

Photo of Councillor James McInnes
Councillor James McInnes

Mr McInnes said the number of children in Devon with Education Care and Health Plans had more than doubled over the past six years.

“The majority can be successfully supported in our mainstream schools and Devon supports a higher than average number of children in our mainstream schools,” he said. “But some of the most vulnerable children need to be educated in a special school.

“Our paramount concern is obviously to provide the best possible education and care for them.”

Currently Devon has to buy expensive places in independent schools when it cannot provide a place in one of its own special schools.

“But an average place in an independent special school often costs twice as much as a place in one of Devon’s own special schools,” said Mr McInnes.

“And often children have to travel away from their homes – and sometimes out of the county – to access a place in an independent school.

“So it makes sense for their welfare and well-being as well as providing a more cost effective option.”

In common with most education authorities, Devon’s budget for high needs education is overspent. The cumulative deficit for 2019/20 and 2020/21 is set to be £43 million.

“We have developed a recovery plan that includes making significant investment in creating new special school places,” said Mr McInnes.

But the average difference in annual cost between a state-funded school and an independent school was £24,000 per child with some costing up to £100,000 a year, he said.

The new Okehampton school would save up to £2 million a year in independent school fees, he said.