New Willows High School gets green light

But will the ‘community access’ be all it’s cracked up to be?

Cardiff Council’s Planning Committee has given the go-head for a brand-new home for Willows High School to be constructed on land off Lewis Road in Splott (on the site of the old Splott Market and other plots off Lewis Road).

You may have noticed that the area has been cordoned off and work to prepare the land has begun (so, it’s good news that plans have been given the go-ahead!).

While this is excellent news, as the old school is achieving wonderful things in a woefully under-par facility, I have questions about the apparent amazing community benefits that the new school will bring for people living locally.

According to the press release issued today, the scheme represents more than £50m investment and will see the existing school relocated and rebuilt, providing capacity for 900 learners aged 11 to 16 years in addition to a 30 place Special Resource Base for pupils with Additional Learning Needs and offering access to excellent quality education environments to support and enhance teaching and learning.

All good. All great. A big yes to this.

Now, here’s the interesting bit…….

“Delivered under Cardiff Council and Welsh Government’s Band B, Sustainable Communities for Learning programme, the new school will have a community focus and offer comprehensive sports facilities such as a sports hall, gym, drama studio, 3G and grass pitches, which will be available for public use outside of school hours. The scheme will also provide improved pedestrian facilities to support active travel arrangements in the area.”

Will be available for public use outside of school hours. Hmmmmmmm.

When the old STAR Centre on Splott Road was closed and the new STAR Hub was built in Splott Park, we lost our full size sports hall, where many residents played badminton, five aside football, went to Taekwondo classes etc., after the design of the new STAR Hub was changed last minute with the removal of the sports hall due to cost issues. We were promised that we weren’t missing out because we could use the hall at Willows High.

All good, right? In principle.

But that just didn’t happen and was never a realistic option (and let me tell you why).

Firstly, there was no booking system put in place. How were we supposed to book a badminton court when there was no one at the end of a phone, no one at a reception desk or even (and always the last option in my book) an app in place to make bookings? Was the school supposed to manage this on top of prioritising the education of children and shrinking budgets? Were they given extra resource to manage the extra work? I think that the answers to these questions is, erm, yes…and, ah, no. I’m happy for someone to point out that I’m wrong, and I’m sure they will if I am. I eagerly wait to post a correction.

Another consideration: if Cardiff Council believes that the hall bookings will cover school staff time, or a few new appointments to manage community access, then I believe this is short-sighted. It is well knows that leisure facilities have had to be subsidised by local authorities across Wales or farmed out to private companies in order to stay open. Bookings never cover costs.

Secondly, there was no arrangement put in place for the management of bookings. In the unlikely event of being able to book a badminton court, who was going to open the gym out of school hours to let us in and close up behind us? Who was going to take payment on the night, so to speak? Who would be available to supervise sessions, be insured to do so, have the knowledge and skill to be the representative on site when private bookings were active? Again, if this was all in place, please someone let me know and I will lament the loss of years of badminton with friends because of my own ignorance. I will happily and gladly promote the new opportunities at the new school with confidence and enthusiasm.

Thirdly, there was no hot water at the sports hall at Willows for two years after it was built. Not great for people wanting to grab a shower after a sweaty football session (or any sweaty sports session for that matter). Will the new facilities be built to a high standard and fully ready on time? Asking for us residents, school staff and pupils!

So before getting too excited about the possibility of actually having a full size sports hall available to residents for use ‘out of school hours’, I’d like to know if these issues have been considered. What does ‘outside of school hours’ mean? Can we go for an early morning game of badminton or is it an early evening slot? How late will the hall be available for bookings? More details please!

I will ask these questions of Deputy Leader of Cardiff Council, and Cabinet Member for Education Cllr Sarah Merry, who said:

“The reality of delivering an excellent brand-new, modern home for Willows High School moves one step closer with the approval of planning. This development represents a significant investment in the local area and will provide exceptional facilities, expertise and teaching opportunities for students and staff, as well as offering superb facilities for the whole community to enjoy and benefit from.

“The progression of the new school build, reaffirms our commitment to making sure all of Cardiff’s children haveopportunities to learn in high quality school settings andsupports Cardiff’s Child Friendly City status which prioritises the rights and needs of children and young people, putting them at the heart of everything we do.”

Willows High School Headteacher Chris Norman, quite rightly, said:

“This is excellent news for our staff, pupils and wider community. The excitement is definitely building and we all look forward to moving into the brand new accommodation with state of the art facilities. It will give the whole area a massive and well deserved boost.”

And it is great for Willows to get a new building that reflects the incredible amount of hard work that staff and pupils have put in to make Willows an excellent school with a reputation for ambition, academic achievement and quality extra curricular experiences (I was recently told by a person involved with mainstream media that out of all schools in Cardiff offered a session by professionals on career opportunities in said field, only Willows said ‘heck yeah!’).

But I am disillusioned by the ‘available for community use’ blurb, because I’ve heard it and read it before, and it just hasn’t been true.

I sincerely hope that this is not a glib remark in a slick press release, but has been properly considered and planned for, to actually give back to Splott what it has lost. A FULL SIZE SPORTS HALL FOR USE BY THE PEOPLE OF SPLOTT, ADAMSDOWN AND TREMORFA!

Anyhoo, back to the press release:

Subject to procurement, the main construction of the new campus is expected to start in Summer 2024. Pupils will remain at the existing Willows High School site until the new school build is complete to minimise the potential for disruption.

In June 2023, the Council announced Morgan Sindall as the chosen contractor to carry out the enabling works associated with the scheme which have included;

  • A stopping up order on Lewis Road and relevant highways works, to allow development to take place
  • Construction of active travel routes to the eastern perimeter of site
  • Installation of new utilities and relocation of existing services
  • Excavation and groundworks including the removal of contaminated material following disturbance of ground
  • Demolition of existing buildings located on Portmanmoor Road and at Splott Market site
  • Installation of secure fencing around site boundary

The contractors have also taken the design of the main school forward, under a Pre-services contract.

So, it looks like it’s all go (ahead).

Which is fantastic (and I cannot over-emphasise how much I am a fan of Willows High and am 100% behind a new school worthy of the amazing staff and pupils), but I am cynical about the community benefits, and the only thing which will change my mind about that is to see a detailed, well considered (and costed) plan as to how that will work. Actually work, not pie in the sky work, but really work.

Who will run it, who will man it and how will we be able to access it?

I hope this has been more than just considered but has a realistic delivery plan that will mean that we aren’t missing out anymore. That progress actually means progress in this instance. Not a loss of provision masked under a shiny new building which delivers less than we had before.

It is, sadly, my expectation that we will once again be disappointed (and that’s coming from someone who was once described as ‘annoyingly optimistic’ by two different people at two different times on the same day)).

I will be ecstatic to be proved wrong.