Parents, teachers and governors have vowed to carry on fighting to ensure West Sussex County Council makes good on its promise to finish building a special school.
Dozens of people packed into the Burgess Hill Academy on Tuesday (September 6) for a meeting of the South Mid Sussex County Local Committee, where the issue of Woodlands Meed School was the main talking point.
I don’t think it’s fair that some of us are not able to go to the college because they can’t go in wheelchairs and there are not enough toilets. I want the new school built because then my friends can go thereAnnabelle Hodgson, 11
Woodlands Meed opened in September 2012 as a single-site special school for 4-19-year-olds. The plan had been to complete the school by building a college for the older children on the same site, but the necessary funds never surfaced. Now, with the old portable cabins being used at the school no longer fit for purpose, Woodlands Meed has had to turn away children when they reached the age of 14.
Parents conducted themselves admirably at the meeting but feelings were high that the council had let down the children of Woodlands Meed – not only through its failure to complete the building but also its decision to lease the land from under the school’s feet. Last month, the land was leased for 125 years to the University of Brighton Academies Trust, which runs the Burgess Hill Academy – formerly Oakmeeds Community College.
One little girl summed up the mood perfectly.
Annabelle Hodgson, 11, a pupil at Woodlands Meed, said: “I don’t think it’s fair that some of us are not able to go to the college because they can’t go in wheelchairs and there are not enough toilets.
“I want the new school built because then my friends can go there.”
Members of the committee were supportive of the school’s plight but Councillor Andrew Barrett-Miles astonished the room when he revealed he had only leaned about the issue from members of the public rather than the council itself.
He said: “I would like to be kept more informed because I first learned about this from the public and not from the county council. I feel as a councillor I am trying to catch up. We need to be kept informed about what happens.”
John Clifton, chair of governors at Woodlands Meed, said he was “very angry” to hear the councillors had been so ill-informed.
He added: “It confirmed our view that this was just going to be driven through without a thought for us and our needs.”
Mr Barrett-Miles told the room he felt “let down”. Describing early planning meetings when the whole Woodlands Meed development was in the pipeline, he said: “It was made very clear that the second phase of the development would happen in a very short space of time. I feel the county council has hugely let down the children of Woodlands Meed.”
The committee’s frustration at the lack of information they had been given over the past few months was apparent.
Councillor Andy Petch asked his colleagues: “Can we write a fairly direct letter to the Cabinet member and chief executive asking for answers?”
With the issue of finance on everyone’s mind, Mr Petch also asked for guarantees about a new £200m funding pot for vulnerable children being provided by the government. The council confirmed in August it would be applying for a share but Mr Petch said: “Are there any guarantees that the council are going to apply for that specifically for Woodlands Meed, not just to be swallowed up elsewhere?”
Councillor Anne Jones called on people to write to Mid Sussex MP Sir Nicholas Soames and ask him to raise the issue in the House of Commons. She also pledged to continue to fight for Woodlands Meed, adding: “We want to give the children the very best. You have that commitment from all of us.”
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Clifton said: “I was very encouraged by what the councillors said. They certainly appeared to understand the issues we have and all seemed very supportive of our cause.
“We will be looking to the councillors to drive this forward.” He added: “We will get this built – we are committed to getting this built for the children.”
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