The Woodlands Meed community was left with a lot of unanswered questions after a public meeting about the future of the special needs school.
Parents, staff and governors met last Wednesday (October 5) in the hope local and county councillors would give them some good news about the four-year-old pledge to complete the college.
Woodlands Meed 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.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the summer brought the news West Sussex County Council had leased the remainder of the Chanctonbury Road land to neigh-bouring Oakmeeds Community College, which was in the process of converting to academy status.
Pitching the education of children against a poorly filled funding pot is always going to leave a bad taste in the mouth
While the lease includes a clause that will enable the council to take back the land, parents and governors were left feeling let down and abandoned. One parent at the meeting even accused the council of lying to them.
Though they conducted themselves well during the meeting, their anger and frustration was clear. And who could blame them?
They were sold a dream of a new school for the most vulnerable children in Mid Sussex; a place where youngsters would be educated and nurtured and taught to develop their skills. Then, for the sake of a few million pounds, that dream was snatched away, leaving the older children to pay the price.
Several parents asked about the old Court Meadow building – former home of one of the schools that had been closed to make way for Woodlands Meed.
They wanted to know how much the unused building was worth and why it couldn’t be sold to finance the build.
No one on the panel had an answer for them, which only added to the frustration.
Another parent accused the council of providing “a very poor service and education” compared to other children in the county. Describing the situation as “not acceptable”, she said parents should now be able to choose where they sent their children – even if that meant finding suitable education in another county – and called on the council to pay for it.
Again there was no real answer from the panel, other than to defend the provision available at Woodlands Meed.
Not that the county council has been doing nothing.
Plans are in place to install three mobile classrooms and a hygiene room at the college – which was described by one parent as “putting a plaster over” the problem.
In addition, a bid will be submitted to the Department for Education (DfE) for a share of a £200million being set aside to help vulnerable children.
Graham Olway, principal manager of capital planning and projects, told the meeting: “The county council is not saying it won’t complete the bringing together of Woodlands Meed onto the one site. All of the discussions have all been very much around the subject of available funding.
“And quite simply, that funding is not currently available.
“The county council does not have the luxury of having unlimited funds and, as we do in many instances, we have to dig for that funding to become available.”
Pitching the education of children against a poorly filled funding pot is always going to leave a bad taste in the mouth.
That taste becomes more bitter when you realise that, even when the DfE money does surface, if West Sussex is granted a share, it will only be a fraction of the sum needed by Woodlands Meed.
And the council has more than one project to support.
‘If’ seems to have been the problem all along. ‘If’ the money is available the school will be finished, ‘if’ the government looks favourably on West Sussex, some extra cash will be available, and ‘if’ Woodlands Meed is ever finished, headteacher Adam Rowland won’t be faced with the heart-breaking task of turning away the children he and his staff have dedicated their working lives to helping.
Burgess Hill councillor Anne Jones, who has been an advocate of Woodlands Meed since day one, said: “The battle continues and, from where I sit, it’s a battle we have got to succeed in winning for all of our children, both today and in the future.”
This particular battle appears to have ended in stalemate, as was reflected by chairman of governors John Clifton.
Mr Clifton said: “Sadly, there were no substantive answers to the fundamental questions around how we will get Woodlands Meed completed.
“The problems of funding and land remain unsolved.”
He added: “When it comes to funding, the council seem to be relying on new money from the government, whilst admitting that this may not materialise in a form that will help us. The council does not seem to be considering its own capital funds for the project.”
Parent Karen George said: “Personally, I was disappointed that West Sussex County Council are still not answering direct questions nor being effective in dealing with the current crisis situation they have created.”
Describing the meeting as leaving “lots of unanswered question”, she added that she was “rather shocked” by the lack of answers relating to Court Meadow, calling it a “missed opportunity”.
A county council spokesman would not say how much Court Meadow was worth as the information was “commercially sensitive”.
He added: “West Sussex County Council officers are working closely with Woodlands Meed school and governors to explore all possible sources of funding to provide the pupils with the facilities they need. The council remains committed to provide all children and young people living in West Sussex with the best education possible.”
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