Furious parents protest against 'shameful' u-turn on new Llanelli school leaving children learning in 'falling down shed'

Parents have reacted with fury at a controversial U-turn by education bosses which means a much-needed multi-million pound new special school in Llanelli will not be built after all, despite seven years of planning. A demonstration was held on the steps of County Hall in Carmarthen on Wednesday morning which saw campaigners protest against a decision which they say leaves education provision for children with additional learning needs severely lacking.

It was last Monday night (May 13) that Carmarthenshire Council confirmed that proposals to build a new school building for Ysgol Heol Goffa - which were first announced in 2017 - wouldn’t be going ahead because the authority could no longer afford to complete the project. The new building was to replace the existing school which has been described as “not fit for purpose”. To get the latest Carmarthenshire stories sent directly to you for free, click here.

The new school was originally expected to cost around £10m, a figure which had risen to an estimated £17m by 2021. The council has confirmed that the overall cost would now amount to at least double that amount - more than £30m - leading the authority’s cabinet member for education and Welsh language, Glynog Davies, to declare that the project was “not financially viable” given the “current economic climate and the financial strains” placed upon the council.

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On Wednesday morning, cries of “shame on the council” and “keep your promises” could be heard outside the council’s main offices in the heart of Carmarthen. One of those in attendance was Rebecca Davies from Llanelli. Her three-year-old daughter Millie, who has autism and severe learning difficulties, has been accepted for a place in Ysgol Heol Goffa but her family has been left totally in the dark about when she will actually be able to start there given the lack of spaces due to overcrowding. The new school, with enough space for around 130 pupils aged between three and 20 years of age - around 55 more than the current building's capacity - was meant to offer new hope to parents. Instead, they are left fearing for their children’s futures.

“Millie is eighth in line to start at Ysgol Heol Goffa but we don’t know when that will actually be because there’s no room,” said Rebecca, who recently gave up her job as a primary school teacher to be a carer for her daughter. “There’s a huge crisis in Carmarthenshire in terms of getting a diagnosis for your child, and without a diagnosis you can’t get access to the right school. It takes four years to get a diagnosis. Ysgol Heol Goffa is at full capacity; it’s breaking at the seams. The building is not fit for purpose, so we hoped that the new school would increase capacity and create a safe environment for children. The new school is very much needed.”

Referring to the spiralling cost of the now-shelved new school project, Rebecca said: “I can’t get over how they (the council) got it so wrong with the cost - why can’t they change the design? It doesn’t have to be ‘all singing, all dancing’, it just needs to be safe. It’s desperate - these children need somewhere to be educated and to be safe. Instead what they have is a falling down shed.”

Rebecca thought her daughter Millie might eventually have a place in Ysgol Heol Goffa - when she is six years old. She fears it may mean her daughter having to go to a mainstream school in Llanelli. “They have to open up a place at a mainstream school, but I’ve worked in primary education and I am telling you now that the schools cannot cope. As a teacher I thought I was clued up on these children’s needs but having Millie really opened my eyes.”

Rebecca said the staff and the performance of the existing school were not issues for concern. It has received “excellent” Estyn reports, but the facilities were just not there, she argued, and neither was the space. “Millie’s sister Maggie goes to Ysgol Ffwrnes in Llanelli. The thing is, if I take her out of school for whatever reason I can get fined. But Millie doesn’t even have a school to go to - so can I fine the council?!"

Protestors on steps outside building
Protestors outside Carmarthenshire County Hall on Wednesday -Credit:Media Wales

Millie’s young cousin William was also outside county hall on Wednesday morning and took part in the protest. He shouted “where is our school for our poor little Millie?” before the rest of the group responded with huge applause. Another in attendance at the protest was Gareth Lloyd, a former teacher and current secretary of Carmarthenshire Trades Council. He said the council had gone back on a promise it made to parents about the education that would be provided to their children, and that the U-turn had raised concerns among existing staff about job security. Last week, councillor Glynog Davies said the council was “committed to exploring the delivery of alternative facilities on different sites”, something which led Mr Lloyd to highlight the “real fears” among the 80 or so staff at Ysgol Heol Goffa.

“There is a real concern about jobs,” he said. “Once rumours start about job losses, staff can look around for jobs elsewhere, and there’s already a shortage of teachers and other staff in schools. This is an excellent school. The pupils and staff are all doing extremely well. But when you walk into a school that environment needs to be conducive to learning.

"You don’t make promises that you cannot keep. The school is in a state. Staff have been left gutted by the news, and parents and children have been betrayed. We want an acknowledgement that all discussions will take place with recognised trade unions within the sector, and we want to be involved in discussions at a strategic level early on.”

Protestors on steps outside building
A protestor holds a sign declaring that the fight for Ysgol Heol Goffa will continue -Credit:Media Wales

Mark Evans, secretary of the Carmarthenshire branch of the union Unison, wrote an open letter to councillor Glynog Davies this week in which he shared his own dismay at the fear of job losses, saying that “members have been left in mid-air” following Mr Davies’s comments about the potential delivery of facilities on “different sites”.

“We would like to know when the council is going to consult Unison and the other unions about what proposals you are considering,” wrote Mr Evans. “We have to say that this decision appears to be rushed as you had no alternative proposals in place when you made the announcement. Our members should not be treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark). We demand the council open the books to show us how it reached the decision it reached. We call for an immediate meeting between you, the council leader and all the trade unions. We oppose your decision to cancel the building of a new school and intend with others to campaign for the decision to be reversed.”

As for young Millie from Llanelli, whose educational future was claimed to be very much up in the air, her grandfather, Gareth Davies, also spoke passionately outside county hall on Wednesday. “My daughter Rebecca has fought and fought to get Millie assessed and through her determination and sheer grit she has managed to embarrass the council enough to force them into giving her an assessment, because without an assessment you can’t get any support. We are delighted that she has got into Ysgol Heol Goffa which is ideal for her. She was supposed to start this coming September so we were all delighted, but my daughter has received the news now that Millie is unlikely to start before she is six years old.

"So what do we do for the next three years? They say early intervention is what is required with these children in order to give them the best possible opportunities in life. But three years of her (Millie’s) life with nobody but my daughter to teach her? My daughter is not a specialist in this field. Millie needs to go to Ysgol Heol Goffa; she needs the facilities that a special school can give her.

"It’s almost like ‘dead man’s shoes’ there - you’ve got to wait for someone to pass away for someone to get a place. Ysgol Heol Goffa is already oversubscribed. I’ve asked for a list of how many children are waiting to get a place and the council can’t answer me, or won’t answer me. We need this school now. We don’t need it in 10 years’ time, we need it now, the children need it now.”

Protestors on steps outside building
Gareth Davies, whose three-year-old granddaughter is expected to start at Ysgol Heol Goffa - eventually -Credit:Media Wales

In response to the concerns raised by parents and others opposed to the scrapping of the new school construction, Carmarthenshire Council reiterated that it was "fully committed to providing the very best facilities for ALN (additional needs learning) pupils in Llanelli". It also stressed that improvement works would be carried out at the existing Ysgol Heol Goffa to "ensure that all pupils at the school will benefit from the very best facilities possible".

In a letter written to parents this week, councillor Glynog Davies wrote: "We recognise your frustrations and share your disappointment that the planned new school will not be built, however due to the construction costs associated with the build having escalated significantly from what was originally estimated, we have no choice but to consider alternative plans. With the needs of Ysgol Heol Goffa pupils first and foremost in our minds, we will very soon begin a review of the current ALN specialist provision in Llanelli.

"The results of the review will inform our officers as they work to develop alternative proposals that will serve the needs of our learners. No further decisions have been taken at this stage, and any future proposals that will be developed with the school will be subject to full public consultation at the appropriate time. We would like to reassure you that any proposals that will be brought forward to you and the wider family of Ysgol Heol Goffa will ensure that your children will continue to receive the very best education."