Sutton Council has approved a plan to turn a failing £8million community centre into a new SEND school.

The Sutton Life Centre will be transformed into a site for people with special educational needs and disabilities over the age of 16 to access education.

Sutton-based Orchard Hill College will move into the community centre building, creating an extra 72 places for SEND children and young adults.

Orchard Hill College, based at Quadrant House in Sutton, provides life skill and vocational training across their nine colleges and was recently awarded an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted.

The move will see Orchard Hill occupy the back rooms of the centre, leaving the main library and sports facilities untouched.

The plans could also see the centre’s café reopened and staffed by Orchard Hill students.

Councillors were quick to praise the benefit this new arrangement will bring to the borough’s SEND provision during a meeting on Monday (February 19). Sutton has experienced a 94% increase in the number of Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) supported children since 2015.

Liberal Democrat council leader Ruth Dombey said: “I have been contacted by several families who have been delighted at this suggestion, it really fills a need and the fact that we are able to retain the library and perhaps a café run by Orchard Hill students is really positive. It will keep its position as a community hub but also offer real potential and opportunities for people with special needs.”

The Sutton Life Centre will join the Sherwood Park School Hill Campus and Angel Hill Free School, which have recently been approved to provide more places for SEND children in the borough.

While a date has not been set for Orchard Hill’s expansion, the council did confirm that it stands to make £180,000 in terms of savings by leasing part of the centre to Orchard Hill.

The council also told the LDRS how the expansion will free up space at Orchard Hill’s Robin Hood Lane Centre.

Currently, Sutton Vision has a lease on the ground floor while Orchard Hill occupies the top floor.

Councillors were less sanguine about the current state of the Sutton Life Centre, which Conservative councillor Tim Crowley called a ‘white elephant’ – expensive to manage and not serving a useful purpose.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), he said: “I’m glad they have managed to reprovision it now; I wish it would have happened earlier though as it would have saved taxpayers a lot of money. It’s just been left to managed decline over the past five or six years, with nothing really happening there.”

The centre was opened by then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in 2010, after costing the council £8m to build.

Half the funding for the centre came from central government’s MyPlace grant, with the remaining £4m coming from Sutton Council.

According to the original business plan released in 2009 the centre was intended to be a "modern state of the art eco-friendly building with a citizenship and life skills centre, library, activities for young people via a Youth Zone, community rooms, an external all weather sports pitch, an outdoor climbing wall, a coffee shop/internet café and an eco and sensory garden".

The centre was heavily promoted as a citizenship training centre for children and boasted fully interactive classrooms complete with the latest technology. However, according to Cllr Crowley, the centre has never lived up to its expectations.

He told the LDRS: “The business plan itself was for it to make huge sums of money through bringing 40,000 children a year from Surrey, Kent and London to the centre on paid school trips.

"They were also going to make £60,000 a year from the cafeteria, but unfortunately, that never transpired and it was an unmitigated disaster, if truth be told.”

According to fellow Conservative councillor Neil Garratt, annual visitor numbers dropped as low as 2,000 in 2019 against the original target of 40,000.

He argued that it was failing to welcome visitors before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cllr Crowley added: “In 2015, we suggested they turn it into an education centre for apprentices and construction industry training because we thought the council would be able to sell that to the cabinet office and actually make some money out of it.

“They have said all along they couldn’t change the site to anything because the cabinet office would not allow any change otherwise the grant funding would have to be given back, and it would cost them £4.8m.

"They had a review of the centre in 2014-15 because at that point it was losing on average £400,000 a year.

“They then repurposed it, by getting rid of a lot of people and then managed to get the police to take a part of it. So they managed to cross-subsidise it and cut the losses to around £200,000 a year, but they were still losses.”

Cllr Crowley said there were only three years out of the last 13 where they’ve actually made a surplus versus the budget, but explained: “That doesn’t mean they make any money, it just means the loss wasn’t as great as they thought it was going to be.”

Despite concerns over the centre’s failings, all were in agreement that the move was a welcome addition to Sutton’s SEND provision, which has struggled to keep up with demand in recent years.

The number of students supported with an EHCP in Sutton has risen 94 per cent since 2015 and now stands at over 2,100 students.

Cllr Crowley said: “That £4.5m spent over the last 13 years would have funded a lot of EHCPs. However, I’m glad that something that is going there is going to be of some use and is going to help the local population.”

A spokesperson for Sutton Council said: “This [repurposing] provides an opportunity to meet the pressure on sufficient post-16 SEND education places and offer life-changing learning opportunities for students with complex needs delivered by Orchard Hill College, an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted-rated specialist education provider.”

They added: “In its first five years over half a million users (554,760) visited the Sutton Life Centre and almost 25,000 young people attended as part of regular school tours. The council is constantly identifying opportunities to make the best use of its buildings.

“Over time, the range of services available at the Sutton Life Centre has been developed and prior to the pandemic the building was achieving its objectives and operating within budget and exceeding its income targets.

"Citizenship tours have been delivered for 90 per cent of Sutton’s Year 6 pupils and facilities have been offered to the community including: a public library and café, meeting rooms and external sports facilities: the all weather football pitch and climbing wall.

“The latest proposals for the Sutton Life Centre are in response to the financial challenges facing all local authorities in England and a decrease in use of the building, particularly since the pandemic.

"The Department for Education (DfE) and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) agree that a new post-16 specialist SEND facility operating in the building is absolutely in keeping with the original aims of the Sutton Life Centre to maximise life chances for young people in Sutton.”