Woodlands Meed meeting sees tears of anger and frustration

There were tears from parents and councillors alike as frustration at West Sussex County Council’s failure to build a college for children with special needs bubbled over.

Albourne village hall was packed on Tuesday evening (November 12) when a volley of questions about Woodlands Meed, in Burgess Hill, were fired at Nigel Jupp, the council’s new cabinet member for education.

The school was opened in Chanctonbury Road in 2012 and has been battling ever since to get the council to make good on its promise to build a college for the older children, who are being educated in a prefabricated set-up in Birchwood Grove Road.

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The arrangement has been described as ‘not fit for purpose’ and the council has admitted it was ‘not the best environment for the pupils or the most efficient way to run this school’.

At the meeting of the Central and South Mid Sussex County Local Committee, Mr Jupp said he had met with the head teacher and governors and had been given a ‘comprehensive review’ of the situation.

His said he hoped a cabinet decision would be made about funding for the college at a meeting in early January. This was yet another disappointment, yet another delay, for the school and the parents.

In February the council said it would provide up to £20m in its capital programme for the college, with the aim of opening it in September 2021. A final decision about the money was expected to be made in September but it was pushed back to November and now January.

There was an air of almost tangible anger among some parents, who were clearly fed up of having to ask the same questions at meeting after meeting.

One, whose son has autism, was overcome by tears when she said: “You have no idea of the pressure that our children and us are under. It’s an uphill struggle all of the time.

“Just give them the dignity they deserve because quite frankly at the moment they don’t have it. We’ve been waiting for so long for you to do something. Can you please tell me who we can trust?”

Others asked what had changed since September when assurances were last given that things were on track.

Parent Sabrina Gant demanded an ‘absolute guarantee’ from Mr Jupp that the facilities needed by the children would be provided.

She said: “We’ve got to the stage where we have a special school that’s excluding special children because of the facilities the county is unable to provide.”

But he had no guarantees for them and no solid answers.

Karen George, of the Complete Woodlands Meed campaign, said: “We are going to continue to fight this injustice until you put it right. I hope West Sussex know we are going nowhere.

“For seven years these vulnerable children have been let down.”

Mrs George was one of several people to accuse the council of failing to meet its statutory duty to deliver a curriculum for the older children.

She said: “I’m absolutely embarrassed and appalled that my local council cannot sort this out.”

That embarrassment was shared by some councillors.

A tearful Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) told Mr Jupp: “Not only am I embarrassed to sit here at the moment as a representative of the council, I am also furious that we are having to sit here yet again and listen to parents and governors who we cannot provide answers to.

“Please look at this and think about the promises that have been made by the council and make sure they get their building because those kids do not deserve the lack of facilities they’ve got.”

Andrew Barrett-Miles (Con, Burgess Hill North) added: “I am really upset that we’re not getting on with it. I have always been a huge supporter of the school and I will continue to be.

“I will continue to be on your back because we have got to deliver this. This was a promise that was made ten years ago.”

Speaking against the idea of reviewing the entire project while the council develops its special needs strategy for 2019-24, Mr Barrett-Miles added: “It’s part of that strategy but it’s a plank that I thought we already had. The strategy should build on that plank.”

Woodlands Meed will be discussed at the next meeting of the council’s Children and Young People’s Services Select Committee on December 4.