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Council chiefs face barrage of criticism for decision not to proceed with new special school

Campaigners who presented a petition about special school Ysgol Heol Goffa outside County Hall, Carmarthen, ahead of a council meeting (Pic: Shaun Greaney)

PARENTS of children at a special school in Llanelli have branded a decision not to proceed with a new-build school in the town as “appalling”.

They presented a petition at a Carmarthenshire Council meeting setting out their frustration that the long-awaited Ysgol Heol Goffa scheme had been shelved on cost grounds by the Plaid-Independent administration.

The petition said the current school was over-capacity and no longer suitable. It added: “It’s appalling that they can even think it’s okay to make this decision but yet can provide other schools within the county new buildings and facilities!”

Cllr Glynog Davies, cabinet member for education, said an independent review would take place of additional learning needs provision in Llanelli which will factor in the views of pupils, parents, staff and school governors among others. Any proposals arising from this review will be subject to public consultation. Council leader Darren Price said a new school could potentially be one of the proposals as far as he was concerned.

Lead petitioner Amy Evans said online and hard copy petitions urging the council to retract its decision not to proceed with the new Ysgol Heol Goffa at the former Draka copperworks site, close to Ysgol Pen Rhos, had been signed by more than 5,300 people. The decision was made public in May.

Ms Evans said Ysgol Heol Goffa had been a lifeline for her son – a long-term pupil – helping him achieve milestones the family were told he would not overcome. “He feels safe, understood and accepted,” she said. Special schools, she added, were “sanctuaries of support and understanding” for parents as well as learners.

Ms Evans argued that the long-term economic consequences of not proceeding with a new school could be more costly in terms of future support for school leavers than the short-term decision to pull the plug.

Cllr Davies said he had met the school’s headteacher Ceri Hopkins and governors and that all parties would work collaboratively to find a solution. “Members of this cabinet are completely committed to meet the needs of learners,” he said. The Plaid councillor added that all councils faced increasing demand for additional learning needs education in a “very challenging” financial period.

Labour councillor Crish Davies said that as a mother of two autistic daughters she knew what it was like to “constantly fight for everything”. In her view, despite some changes for the better and notwithstanding the tough economic climate, additional learning needs pupils “are still an afterthought for some”. Cllr Davies said she felt the pain of Heol Goffa parents “in my very soul”.

An emotional Cllr Anthony Leyshun said he had firsthand experience of the “wonderful community” of Heol Goffa, but said the toilets were inadequate and that doorways were too narrow for some of the wheelchairs. “We are completely behind parents, pupils, teaching staff and the local community in demanding that additional learning needs children are taught in a 21st Century school,” said the Labour ward member for Lliedi. Independent councillor Rob James agreed, and also thanked the administration for the “hundreds of thousands of pounds” it was going to invest in Ysgol Heol Goffa to improve the building. He said this bought time for a long-term solution to be found.

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Labour councillor Tina Higgins said the school had 124 pupils – 49 more than capacity – with a further 18 on the waiting list. The decision not to proceed appeared “immoral” to her, she said. “Has this administration tried to negotiate or re-tender before abandoning the project?” she asked.

Leader, Cllr Price, said he shared parents’ frustration and that he’d looked forward to the new school being built. It was to have 132 places for three to 20-year-olds and feature a landscaped central courtyard, learning garden, wetland planting area, main hall, hydrotherapy pool and multi-use games area. There would also have been a multi-purpose track for running, cycling, scooters and go-karting featuring winding sections and small ramps.

Councillors were told in February 2023 that the cost of the new school was estimated at £17 million. Cllr Price told the meeting of full council on July 10 that the subsequent rise in costs had been “extraordinary” although he said no figure could be disclosed.

The Plaid leader added that financial pressures were “mammoth” and that Carmarthenshire’s delegated schools budget was taking a £2.5 million hit this year. He said: “We want to find a solution here – a solution that’s acceptable and affordable”. Upgrades at the current school would, he said, take place over the summer and that around £300,000 had been spent on roof work.

Asked if a new Ysgol Heol Goffa could be an option for the newly-announced independent review to consider, he said: “As far as I’m concerned, absolutely.”

Ysgol Heol Goffa headteacher Miss Hopkins said: “The school community are looking forward to working collaboratively with the local authority to ensure that the most vulnerable learners have access to the very best resources, provision and education they so very much deserve.  We look forward to the opportunity to ensuring that the voices of all stakeholders are heard and considered.  The staff remain committed to delivering the very best education, care and life skills and would like to thank the wider community for their support to our pupils and staff.”

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