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County Council Members Grill Cabinet Member Over Possible Woodlands Meed College Rebuild

8th March 2020 | By Peter Chapman

On Wednesday March 4th, members of the West Sussex County Council Children and Young People's Scrutiny Committee had their first opportunity to question the relevant cabinet member and officers, for the first time since the announcement of the county's intention to allocate £20 million for the rebuild of Woodlands Meed SEN College in Burgess Hill.

Cllr Nigel Jupp - Cabinet member for Education and Skills
gave an update to the committee, noting how the Council approved that there should be £20 million allocated for new investment in the Woodlands Meed College buildings with £500,000 being used to explore designs etc over the coming months.

He said that this news was 'warmly welcomed' by the Governors at Woodlands Meed college.

Nigel said he had a meeting with the Governors and the headteacher of Woodlands Meed on Friday 28th February to talk about how to project will broadly progress over the coming months and years.

A project board are having a meeting at the college on Wednesday 11th March. It will be the first meeting of the new project team along with the Governors and the headteachers. Cllr Jupp said there's a lot to be done, the meeting will be attended by Consultants and architects.

The meeting will be chaired by Andrew Edwards - Director of Property and Assets.
This is now a 'property project'.

Cllr Jupp
referred to the many comments regarding the revised entry into the council's published forward plan for the decision to spend the £20 million.

"Any decision has to be subject to a suitable business case, that business case has to be worked up over the course of the next few months and i was advised by the director that the anticipated time for that business case to be completed would be in May, so that is the date that is now in the forward plan."

2023 is still the anticipated delivery date - nothing has changed on that particular aspect.

Cllr Jupp
hopes that the completion date is something that the council can improve upon. 2023 is a prudent time based on the information they have. Officers have been instucted to deliver the building earlier if at all possible.

He vowed to deliver updates to the select committee and to the CLC in terms of the progress of the program.

Paul Wagstaff - Director of Education and Skills,
spoke about the pupil numbers and why the building will be for 100 and not 130. He points to the updated SEND strategy which was published at the end of last term.

The council are looking at a range of options for post-16 education in the area, to promote independence and present a wide-range of broader courses that many existing colleges can already offer instead of seeing post-16 pupils being retained at the same school.

"We don't want to reduce the overal number of places at Woodlands Meed - because we see that there will still be a number of pupils with more complex needs that are unable to access colleges, but what we do see is that we should be making more use of that broader range of provision.

"We are absolutely clear, through the data that we have, through looking at the future needs, that 100 places, keeping and retaining those 100 places will be sufficient."

Nigel Jupp
reaffirms that his ambition is to have the college open on time and on budget and if it can be less than the budget and delivered quicker, then all credit to those involved. "These things will become clearer as the project moves forward, certainly in these early days."

Asked about what contingencies are in place if the project cannot move forward "We will have to look at alternatives, but at the present time, we are concentrating on providing option 1 (Complete rebuild for 100 pupils)

"We do know that there are difficulties with gaining appropriate and safe access to the site because we do know that construction will go on the back of the site on the playing field and anyone who has seen the plans will appreciate that."

said that the county council are talking to various parties who may help to overcome the access problems. This includes discussions with Burgess Hill Town Council who operate the lease for Folders Meadow which abuts the college's playing field.

"Of course we will have to look at other alternatives if this scheme provides too many difficulties - but I don't forsee this at the moment. There were a number of alternatives when this was looked at last year, including, possibly the refurbishment of the existing accommodation - that is a particularly difficult exercise to do, and our preference is far more to build a new building that serves the needs of those 100 pupils"

Nigel Jupp
confirms that he will be attending the June 15th County Local Committee meeting (Due to be held at Woodlands Meed College) By that time, Nigel expects there to have been a number of significant meetings between the team and local members - if they're interested in the project. Nigel says it's important that members are given regular briefings.

Andrew Edwards says he is not in a position to publish a program
"...there are a number of issues that need to be resolved - around things like access - before we would be able to publish a program that we'd be able to be held accountable for."

Chairman David Barling
asked Mr Andrews about gaining consent from Sport England, as in his experience, dealing with that body often leads to delays. Mr Andrews revealed that he has not yet contacted them. Cllr Barling suggested he writes to them 'Pretty Damn Quick' and is looking forward to being sent a copy of the letter in the immediate future.

Cllr Kirsty Lord
said that she's very concerned that the council don't yet have a timeline. "To hear phrases like 'we can't give a timeline because there are a number of issue the still need to be resolved' is the sort of thing that worries us as councillors and worries parents and governors at the school because we've heard that for years"

Kirsty said that for local councillors, the clock started ticking on the project back in February and a decision has already been put back to May for the business case, so it feels like things are slipping. "We really want to see what you timeline is. You must have one as you've said you're going to open in 2023."

Cllr Jupp
reiterated the issues of access and having to deal with third-parties, thus it's difficult to give a timeline at the moment. "Very high-level details have been sketched out, but I think the questions you raise, that you're looking for something more detailed and I think, If you'll pardon us at the moment, that will emerge over the next few weeks."

Cllr Lord
seeks to know if the access issues will be able to be resolved in a matter of weeks, or will it be months? She says that councillors will start to get 'really edgy' if the matter is unresolved come September.

Cllr Jupp said some of the inital work will be completed in the next 3-4 weeks, but the council will be relying on the third parties to work quickly and make progress too. "It is the will of your leader, your cabinet and this council for this project to be completed in the quickest time, within it's budget cost. We want to see this project through successfully. You'll have to trust us, but that's what we want to do."

Paul Wagstaff - Director for Education and Skills
says that the council's pricipal audience in this is the Governors as they represent the interests of the parents and the pupils. "The commitment is there, the work is getting underway"

Mr Wagstaff
then appears to bemoan the select committee sounding like they want to be involved in the project management. He said "the questioning is getting 'too detailed' to which chairman David Barling said he saw nothing wrong with Cllr Lord's questions.

Cllr Anne Jones
paid tribute to the Woodlands Meed Governors. She states that she doesn't think people realise just how much work they've been doing. "I have to sing their praises publicly where I can." Anne also said that she has 'enormous confidence' in Andrew Edwards to deliver the project.

As for building the college for 100 pupils, she called this 'poor planning' due to the population growth for Burgess Hill over the next decade. She says you can't just add on a classroom to any school and expect to send severely inflicted SEN pupils there as it won't be the right place for them. She urges the county council to look again at the numbers.

Cllr Andrew Lea said that the county council absolutely need a high-level plan regardless of outside dependencies, as "that's what project management has to deal with the whole time." He says the committee is not seeking to control or write the plan, just to know that there is a plan so that councillors and the public can see that it is being executed. "We need it for straight-forward confidence of the public."

Andrew agreed with Cllr Jones on the pupil numbers.
"We are building like crazy everywhere... I do not believe for a moment that the SEND figure is correct in saying that we do not need to have that additional capacity. I'd like to see the data that such a prediction is based on because I just don't believe it."

Paul Wagstaff responded to the concerns over the pupil numbers, stressing that the council are looking to find alternatives for pupils who come to Woodlands Meed from locations such as Crawley. They are looking to reduce the stress of transportation and traveling time.

He says that the council need to prepare these pupils for their pathway into adulthood and that a school with 100-130 places is quite narrow in the courses it can offer. Crawley, Chichester, Worthing, Brinsbury and Haywards Heath College are mentioned as alternative destinations for pupils with SEN.

Wrapping up the discussion, Cllr Jupp said:
"I'm only too well aware as to how sensitive this issue is in the local area, that is why I agreed to come to your June (CLC) meeting. It may not be the most pleasant of meetings, but there you go, I'll come along and talk about it."

Spread the word, the county council select committee grilled the Woodlands Meed Project team ahead of the potential rebuild.

Got an opinion on this story? Leave a comment below.....
Do you think the rebuild of Woodlands Meed college will really happen this time?

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