PLACES at Dorset’s new special needs school, near Shaftesbury, will be offered to families from the county as a priority.

Councillors have been told that if the school has spare capacity children from neighbouring counties may also be able to attend.

The school itself, St Mary’s, is just over the border into Wiltshire. It will be known as the Dorset Centre of Excellence, able to take up to 280 pupils with additional needs.

Roughly a third of the 3,000 Dorset children with an education, health and care plan have their family home within 50 minutes of the new centre, a former private school which Dorset Council bought for around £10million.

The first pupils, around 60 aged 5-19, are expected to be admitted next year, many of them with autistic spectrum condition or having social, emotional and mental health difficulties. The school is then expected to grow by adding an extra 60 pupils each year.

Dorset Council claims the new school will help cut its costs and improve education for local children. It says that around 275 Dorset pupils with additional needs are currently being educated and cared for in independent schools, many of these out of the county at a typical cost of between £55,000 and £65,000 a year, typically around £14m a year which Dorset Council needs to find. By bringing some pupils back into the county and to St Mary’s costs will come down to £20,000 to £30,000 a year for each pupil.

Dorset’s people and health overview committee heard on Tuesday that not all of those currently in independent places are likely to be suited to St Mary’s and in some cases families might not want to see their children move even if they were suited, although they would then be closer to home.

Corporate director for education and learning, Vik Verma, says he hopes that the quality of the offer at St Mary’s would tempt many to switch their children to the new school at a suitable point in their education, but says there would be no compulsion to make the transfer.

He told councillors that the council would work closely with the families, helped by an educational psychologist, to identify how the needs of individual children could be best met.

Said executive director for children’s social services, Theresa Leavy: “The commissioning framework is for Dorset children, but we may well have the capacity, beyond the initial stages, for others…it will be Dorset children first but that doesn’t mean we won’t have other people because we believe we will have the capacity to do so.”

She told the committee that the school site could, in time, offer other facilities for older pupils including for horticulture, workshops and flats for those up to the age of 25 who were on their journey towards independent living or work.

Building work is currently under way on the school campus with many key staff already appointed and working on developing a curriculum.

The next steps include the Ofsted registration process and an application to the Department for Education to register as an independent school, run independently from Dorset Council.

A report to councillors warns that this may mean uncertainty over an exact opening date: “The school will seek to register at the earliest opportunity, but it may not open to educate young people until an Ofsted inspection has been completed and the Secretary of State for Education has approved the school.

“The process for admissions to the school itself remains the responsibility of The Dorset Centre of Excellence. Whilst the Council will support to ensure smooth transitions, the school itself will make its own arrangements for admissions, appeal of admissions and other policies and processes related to the admissions of children.”