A FORMER special school is to be used as a new base for a unit for children who’ve been expelled from mainstream Monmouthshire schools.
Councillors agreed to the proposal to use the former staff buildings at Mounton House School in Pwllmeyric near Chepstow for the Pupil Referral Unit that is currently based at Hanbury House, an office block in the centre of the town.
But Monmouthshire Council opposition members complained there had been a lack of scrutiny of the proposal and they had only learned of it when the agenda for the full council’s Thursday, December 7, meeting was published.
However Cllr Martyn Groucutt (Lansdiown ward, Abergavenny), the Labour cabinet member for education, said there was no proposal to change the service, and the council was simply being asked to approve the proposal to meet £700,000 of the £1.2 million conversion costs from borrowing.
The balance will be funded from the council’s education maintenance capital grant.
Will McLean, the council’s chief officer for children and young people, said the costs of repaying the money would be £47,000 a year, over 30 years, from a total budget of around £54 million, while the cost of placing just one year seven child in an out-of-county placement could be £70-80,000 a year.
Using the buildings at Mounton House would provide places for 15 or 16 pupils a year and also a base for the wider Pupil Referral Service, which supports children unable to attend school for a number of issues.
Children who have been expelled since the start of the new term, in September, have had to learn online as Hanbury House, a temporary site at Caerwent Village Hall, and the unit at the Old Library in Abergavenny are at capacity.
It was stated during the meeting nine children have been expelled since September.
Mr McLean said the department wanted “to act with speed” to help a “vulnerable group of learners as their needs are developing now” due to increasing numbers of pupils who are being expelled or permanently excluded from school and others unable to attend.
He said: “It’s not limited to those excluded from school, we’ve seen a huge growth in the numbers unable to attend school because of acute anxiety and traumatic experiences during the pandemic.”
Cllr Groucutt said: “I think the Pupil Referral Service is under more pressure today than at any time since it was created and I think the main reason is the after effects of the pandemic.”
He said the numbers of pupils being expelled are “increasing rapidly” and added: “These are not evil children, let me make that clear, these are young people who have emotional and mental health difficulties in their lives.”
He asked if using “an office block in the middle of Chepstow” could be reconciled with the county plan of giving children the best possible start in life.
On repaying amount that is to be borrowed from the Pupil Referral Service funds, over 30 years, Cllr Groucutt said: “I wouldn’t say it will not be noticed but it can be managed.”
Conservative member for Goetre Fawr Jan Butler said she had spent the last 20 years of her teaching career in the Pupil Referral Service, including in Monmouthshire, and said she was familiar with “unsuitable buildings and draughty village halls.”
But she said while a proposal to relocate the unit was “long overdue” and the service, “now more than ever has to be put in a better position” she said she had “real concerns” at the plan before the council.
“I do not believe this has been through proper scrutiny or consultation and the £1.2 million capital cost, including £700,000 from borrowing to be met from the service budget, I feel very uncomfortable and I can’t support this.”
Shirenewton Conservative Louise Brown, whose ward includes Mounton House, said she and the community council had asked to be kept informed about the site’s future but only learned of the proposal when the agenda was published.
She asked what the new use would mean for the future of the remainder of the former school site and said if the previous Conservative administration hadn’t closed the special school a Welsh Government grant covering up to 75 per cent of the costs of a new school would have been a possibility.
Conservative opposition leader Richard John said his group wasn’t opposed to the plan but said members had been “blindsided” and it should go through the “proper scrutiny channels” while independent group leader Frances Taylor said the report hadn’t shown if any other options had been considered.
Cllr John also said: “The proposal is to spend £1.2 million to support an additional nine pupils excluded since September.”
Mr McLean said the council had looked for alternative sites and “every time we came back to this site” and added, like all the county’s schools, the site can be secured with a fence.
The recommendation to agree the £1.2 million capital investment, including using £700,000 from borrowing, was approved with 23 councillors voting in favour and 21 against.