Woodlands Meed college saga 'cruel and callous' with Sussex SEND children facing more uncertainty

ITV News Meridian's James Dunham reports on another setback for children with special education needs at Woodlands Meed

Families with children who have special educational needs are angry and in utter despair as they start another year unable to use a brand new college in Sussex.

Pupils were due to move out of condemned porta cabin classrooms and begin using the new Woodlands Meed in Burgess Hill last May, but the date then moved to September and then to Christmas.

Opening has been pushed back again because of building issues, with Easter pegged as a potential moving date at the earliest as the contractor ISG says it's working as 'swiftly as possible' to remedy the problems.

The setbacks mean more uncertainty for teachers and teenagers and more criticism for West Sussex County Council in the ongoing saga which saw children promised a new college site more than a decade ago.

Among the issues raised, concerns about ceilings being too low with some unable to accommodate wheelchair hoists Credit: Woodlands Meed Governors

17-year old Bethyn thought she'd be able to enjoy brand new facilities yet faces another term being taught in cramped and dilapidated conditions,

"It's not very fun because if you want to put your stuff away in my classroom, it's very crowded. You have to wait for someone else to get out and then you have to move in yourself. It's very chaotic, not fun.

"It's not fair how we don't get the treatment that we're supposed to be given but everyone else is.

"What's that supposed to mean? We're like everyone else."

Bethyn's mother Kate shares her daughter's despair, "We keep asking the questions over and over again. All of us, the school, the governors, the parents, the pupils.

"All we want to know is when it's going to be ready so that we have a clear understanding on how to manage these children that need to know what's going on.

"They need to have structure and routine. That's the very basis of most of their difficulties."

The cramped playground for 120 pupils with special educational needs surrounded by porta cabin classrooms Credit: ITV News

After years of funding difficulties, work on the £21 million pound project finally started in 2021 with West Sussex Council Council awarding the construction contract to ISG.

When Governors sent in their own surveyor a number of problems were identified including unfinished floors, ceiling's which are too low to accommodate wheelchair hoists, gaps in the brickwork, an atrium with no rail to stop children falling onto concrete and hygiene rooms where floors are too high for water to flow away into the gulley.

Marion Wilcock, chair of Governors at Woodlands Meed, wants to know why these problems weren't brought forward by the people who are paid by the council to oversee the construction programme.

She said, "The contractor who entered into this contract to finish this building in May. We will be lucky to have it finished by May 24. How can you be a whole year behind with a contract?

"I don't think it's chaos. I think it's cruelty and total callousness."

In anticipation of moving out in December last year, teachers packed up equipment and text books into boxes but all of that now needs to be put back for the new year.

Teachers have been praised for their resilience by parents for coping with the constant uncertainty which they inevitably have to break to the children.

Deputy headteacher Tom Brown said, " I remember when the first big digger got here and we got all the kids out the front and everyone got excited and we're all jumping up and cheering. And it was it was amazing. We were meant to move in in May 2023 and here we are now and we still have no idea when we're going to be moving in."

"We have no idea what we're planning for. Are we staying here for another couple of months? Will we be here until next September? We do not know. As a school that is really hard to run when when when the goalposts are being moved all the time."

A spokesperson for West Sussex County Council said, "WSCC is fully aware of the issues within the build of Woodlands Meed and it is why, working with the college, we took the decision to delay the opening of the school until at least Easter.

"As in any build as complicated as this, there will be issues, but both WSCC and ISG are confident that the building will be completed to a high standard.

"We have kept all interested parties informed of the issues regarding this build and continue to work with ISG to ensure the school is opened as soon as possible.

"We reiterate that we will not hand the school over until we are 100% confident that the school is completed to the highest standard."

An ISG spokesperson said, "WSCC and ISG are aware of concerns raised by the College, and a revised programme is in place to provide absolute confidence to staff and students at Woodlands Meed College that the new building meets all relevant standards.

"As we work towards final handover, and achieving the requisite building certifications, we are collectively monitoring and resolving any quality issues as is normal practice.

"We are working collaboratively and swiftly on closing out these final elements, and we will continue to keep parents, carers and the local community updated on progress in the New Year."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know