‘The future for Woodlands Meed now seems bright not bleak’.
This was the message from one councillor as West Sussex County Council’s capital programme was approved on Friday, bringing with it up to £20m to rebuild and expand the special school’s college site.
Governors, staff, parents, children and campaigners at the school, in Burgess Hill, have been battling for more than six years for the work to be carried out.
And, while delighted with the news, members of the tenacious Complete Woodlands Meed School campaign said they would be ‘watching closely’ to make sure it was done.
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The original plan for the school had been to build an all-through school in Chanctonbury Road for children aged 2-19 with a variety of needs.
It was only ever half completed, with younger children educated in the new building, while the older ones took lessons in an old prefabricated building at the college site in Birchwood Grove Road.
The situation was supposed to be temporary until money could be found to complete the Chanctonbury Road site.
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 council then leased the remainder of the Chanctonbury Road land to neighbouring Oakmeeds Community College, which was in the process of converting to academy status.
While the lease included a clause that would enable the council to take back the land, parents and governors were left feeling let down and abandoned.
At a meeting of the full council on Friday (February 15), Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) described the facilities at the college site as ‘poor’.
She said: “Cramped classrooms. limited hygiene facilities, and an old portacabin with doors that a student using a walking aid had difficulty navigating out of, followed by a long, slow walk down an open air ramp and across the playground to access the toilets that were barely adequate for her needs.”
She added: “I don’t think anyone will relax until the new college site is built and open – but the future for Woodlands Meed now seems bright not bleak.”
Richard Burrett, cabinet member for education & skills, said the college had been a ‘major focus’ for him over the last year or so.
He added: “It’s very clear to me that this is a school where one of its sites is great – it was built a few years ago and it’s operating as it was intended to – but the other site needs rebuilding and we’ve made a commitment that we’re going to do that.
“We’ve had extensive discussions with the governors and the staff and other stakeholders and we’ve made it very clear that that’s what we want to do.”
For some, though, the decision whether to vote in favour of the capital programme was not as easy as it could have been, with concerns raised about the £26.6m of borrowing needed to finance the plans.
Mr Burrett said: “I know some people don’t like borrowing but, at the end of the day, the capital programme, however it’s funded, including the borrowing, is what is going to deliver Woodlands Meed – and Woodlands Meed won’t happen without support for this capital programme from this council.”
A spokesman for the Complete Woodlands Meed Campaign said: “Progressing this campaign as far as we have and it’s success thus far would not have been possible without all our amazing supporters and the dedicated governors who have been working with [the council].
“Now it can move on to the next stage of the project with the knowledge that the funding has been secured plus the principle of progressing the project has been agreed.
“Lots of work lies ahead to progress this new college project and we are hopeful that this will not falter and the new college will be open for the pupils by September 2021.”
A spokesman for the Woodlands Meed governors said: “We are delighted that we are on track to deliver the new college building by September 2021, and that all the hard work by governors and West Sussex County Council officers is coming to fruition.
“In anticipation of this decision we had already started work on the concept design, listening to pupils and staff.
“Our pupils have a clear and realistic idea of what they need in the new building and we are looking forward with enthusiasm to working collaboratively to deliver it.”
An extra £500k has been provided by the council to pay for design work, and the initial designs will be put out to wider consultation.