West Sussex County Council has received a clear ‘get on with it’ from one of its own committees following a meeting about Woodlands Meed special college, local democracy reporter Karen Dunn reports.
Staff, parents and governors have been waiting since 2012 for a new college to be built so older children don’t have to be educated in prefabricated buildings which have been described as ‘not fit for purpose’.
Suggestions that an independent specialist should carry out a review to see if the modular buildings, in Birchwood Grove Road, could be brought up to scratch did not go down well with members of the children and young person’s select committee today (Wednesday December 4).
Their recommendation to Nigel Jupp, cabinet member for education, was that the college should be rebuilt from the ground up and a planning application submitted to Mid Sussex District Council soon.
The committee also said the council had all the information it needed about the college site, that no extra review was needed, and a ‘firm and clear’ decision should be made by the end of January.
Chairman David Barling (Con, Bramber Castle) said: “We must have a new school and not in any way a sticking plaster. I’m quite clear that a new-build school is the way forward for the future.”
Mr Barling made it clear to Mr Jupp that, if the committee’s recommendations were not followed, he would be ‘invited’ back to tell them why.
The meeting was well-attended by members of the school community, including chairman of governors Marion Wilcock and the Complete Woodlands Meed campaign group.
Mrs Wilcock said the council should ‘stop prevaricating’ and remember its statutory duty to the 103 children at the school.
She was one of several people who took issue with the report presented to the meeting, which implied the need for better facilities had only been going on since 2016.
It has actually been ten years since the council declared the prefabricated buildings at Birchwood Grove Road did not meet the standards or statutory requirements needed.
Mrs Wilcock said: “We need a quick reality check here because you have managed to whitewash 10 years of our history.”
That criticism was echoed by leader Paul Marshall, who said the report was ‘poor’.
Mr Marshall said the way the Woodlands Meed situation had been handled over the years was ‘an embarrassment’.
Apologising to the school community, he added: “It’s been difficult to try to understand what has gone on.
“This journey of Woodlands Meed has just developed its own interpretation and legs and it’s been extremely frustrating that we as a county council have not been able to articulate our position clearly.
“It’s highly frustrating that we do not have a clear position – and it’s an embarrassment as well.”
One of the main questions on many lips during the meeting was what had changed since February when the council announced that £20m would be included in its capital programme to fund the new college?
There had been enthusiasm with that pledge, that building could soon start and the September 2021 opening date would be met.
That enthusiasm faded each time the final decision was pushed back – first to November and now to January – and the dream of meeting the target date has faded with each passing day.
Mr Jupp explained that £6m of the £20m was made up by a government grant, which the council had not yet received. He told the meeting that the funding approval given in February had been subject to a business case being made – and the £6m grant had been ‘absolutely crucial’ to that case.
Mr Jupp said he was ‘minded to recommend to my cabinet colleagues that the council honour the commitment made by it in February for new investment in the college’.
That recommendation, though, would only come on the back of an independent report into the state of the buildings and their suitability to meet the needs of the children.
He told the meeting the work had already started and he hoped the report would be ready by January.
There were concerns among the committee that an option to spend £2.36m on new modular buildings had been added, with some asking if the council planned to cut costs and take that route.
The committee’s preferred option was for £21m to be spent on a new one and two-storey college for 136 children, with a sports hall added once the current college site was demolished.