Fresh row over future of special school

DM16148283a.jpg. Campaign calling on the county council to finish the Upper School at Woodlands Meed School, Burgess Hill. Headteacher Adam Rowland, right and chair of governors John Clifton and pupils. Photo by Derek Martin SUS-161110-140114008
DM16148283a.jpg. Campaign calling on the county council to finish the Upper School at Woodlands Meed School, Burgess Hill. Headteacher Adam Rowland, right and chair of governors John Clifton and pupils. Photo by Derek Martin SUS-161110-140114008

Governors at Woodlands Meed are ‘deeply concerned’ over ‘backtracking’ by the county council over the future of their special school.

John Clifton, chair of governors at the Burgess Hill school, said he thought an agreement had been reached last month which would see the college completed.

But this week he said: “Despite all the assurances which have been given, the refusal of WSCC to state categorically that it is committed to complete the school is both revealing and disturbing.”

West Sussex County Council said it remained committed to working with parents and governors on agreeing a way forward but needed to be ‘realistic’ with its investment.

Woodlands Meed was formed when two special schools merged in 2012 and is housed on two sites. Younger children are educated in a new building in Chanctonbury Road, while older children are at Birchwood Grove Road, in an old prefabricated building.

The situation was supposed to be temporary until money could be found to complete the Chanctonbury Road site, creating an all-through school for 2-19-year-olds.

As the years passed, that ‘temporary’ position became more and more untenable, with a lack of space and resources resulting in the heart-breaking situation where children were being turned away at the age of 14.

The school’s supporters suffered a huge blow last summer when the county council confirmed it had leased the remainder of the Chanctonbury Road land to neighbouring Oakmeeds Community College, which was in the process of converting to academy status.

Mr Clifton said it was now ‘impractical’ to complete Woodlands Meed on the land left available at Chanctonbury Road. He thought a deal had been struck with West Sussex County Council to complete the school by replacing temporary buildings on the Birchwood Grove Road site, but a dispute over the wording of the deal has led to fresh fears.

In a statement the governors said they thought a ‘significant step forward’ had been made with the county council, but they were now “deeply concerned by the apparent backtracking of the council”.

Mr Clifton said the county council was proposing to spend £1.5M on replacing the existing portacabins and providing an additional hygiene room at the Birchwood Grove Road site.

“Whilst the governors heartily welcomed any monies spent on the school, they did not feel that the proposals actually represented best value for money,” he added.

“Replacing like with like, albeit more modern, did not address the critical problem that the school cannot provide a full curriculum due to the lack of accommodation.”

In response the county council said: “Our priority is for all students to have a high quality education in an appropriate learning environment.

“The council remains committed to working closely with Woodlands Meed parents, governors and school on agreeing way forward.

“The buildings issue at Woodlands Meed is a very high priority for us and we are fully committed to securing a solution.

“We continue to make every effort to work in partnership with representatives of Woodlands Meed governors and parents and so are extremely disappointed with the recent press release which we feel is not a true reflection of the current situation.

“At the beginning of this year we formed a council member’s task group with them to work together on finding a suitable solution to the building issues for the benefit of all the students educated at Woodlands Meed.

“It was agreed the most realistic option was to upgrade the Newick House site and an outline programme of work was agreed.

“Until very recently governors have insisted that the only permanent solution would see all the children and young people educated on a single site. The Council thinks this is not practicable. Following discussions with the school we believe that the governors now accept that a two site solution offers more potential to create a great learning environment for pupils. We are awaiting confirmation of this point.

“In August 2016 we identified £1.5million for works including the replacement of three double classrooms and the creation of new hygiene facilities at Newick House and hoped to have this completed by September 2017. At the request of governors this work has not progressed as there was a desire that this funding should be ‘piggy banked’ in order to create a pot of money that could be used to fund additional works.

“We all recognise the need to invest in Woodlands Meed but we have to be realistic and to balance that with the provision of education and other frontline council services that all our West Sussex residents, young and old, rely upon.”

The issue is due to be discussed at the council’s cabinet meeting on March 24.

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