Claire Perry MP champions Marlborough's new primary school - but again its opening is slightly delayed
The final budget for Marlborough's new primary school - combining St Mary's infants and St Peter's juniors - has still to be agreed. Further delays mean that an opening in April 2017 (already delayed from September 2016) will be missed.
It now looks, Wiltshire Council has told Marlborough News Online, as though construction will be completed in the Spring of 2017, the school will "gradually transfer over that summer and the school will be fully operational in the new buildings by September 2017."
Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Department for Education and its project arm the Education Funding Agency (EFA), Marlborough News Online reported last month on finances of the project and the pressures on Whitehall from the two existing schools to ensure the new school was single storey - reflecting the needs of the of its many children with special educational needs and disabilities.
The campaign was successful, but the cost of the change from the normal two storey design remains a sticking point. Wiltshire Council is having to make a contribution to the overall costs of the buildings to ensure that it is a single storey school.
Councillor Richard Gamble, who holds the portfolio for education, has explained that the £499,000 contribution by Wiltshire Council (which we have reported) is "still indicative" and "if the EFA costs increase, the Council's contribution, unfortunately, will increase."
A further FOI request by Marlborough News Online has now revealed Claire Perry MP's role in this saga. On 27 May 2015, she wrote to the schools minister, Nick Gibb MP, saying she was "...very concerned that the goalposts with the EFA continue to shift, and the project continues to be delayed while negotiations continue."
She stated that four months after Wiltshire Council's contribution was agreed, the EFA had given the Council a new figure for their contribution. (All sums of money were redacted in the documents released under our FOI request.)
The EFA has said that even this new figure may rise. Mrs Perry: "In other words, the EFA wants Wiltshire to offer a blank cheque, which is simply untenable and at the moment the project is on hold."
The Department's Parliamentary Under Secretary, Sam Gyimah MP, replied on 15 June - and gave Mrs Perry no reassurance whatsoever that Wiltshire Council's costs would not rise or could be capped: "Once design and costs have been finished, we will be able to confirm the funding contribution required from the Council."
The reason (or excuse?) for the delay was that "Due to the larger footprint of a single storey building and the sloping site there is a significant increase in the length of the retaining wall required, which has resulted in the cost being reviewed."
But the central point of Sam Gyimah's letter reveals how the EFA operates: "The EFA cannot fund any increase in cost attributable to building the school as a single storey building. Other schools of the same capacity are being built as two storey buildings. There is severe pressure on funding, and the EFA must ensure that the limited funding available is targeted at addressing conditions at as many schools as possible."
Marlborough News Online has showed this letter to a former primary school leader (not in Wiltshire.) He was astonished at the rigid, centralised approach: "All schools do not have to be the same. That's something we last saw in Victorian times in London or with the old command economies. It smacks of lots of 'isms' but certainly not of 'localism'."
He went on to point out that the Department for Education has handed out huge sums of money to set up 'free schools': "They have been spending millions on each one of these new 'free schools' - buying up and converting existing properties and building new ones - they certainly don't all have the same design."
And he pointed out the central contradiction of Mr Gyimah's letter. It talks about 'addressing conditions' at schools - but he and the Department and the EFA are not addressing the conditions at St Mary's and St Peter's schools which demand a single storey design.
Perhaps it would have speeded the process up and allowed more Marlborough pupils to take advantage of the new combined school if the EFA had simply gone back to the (single storey) plans that won planning permission in 2010.
Instead, watch out for a planning application with the new design being lodged early in the New Year.