Fight for Barnstaple special needs college goes to Westminster

Battle to save Heddon College goes from town square to Houses of Parliament

DISTRAUGHT parents have taken to the streets to fight for future of a Barnstaple special needs college.

Thursday’s rally on the Square was held to raise local awareness of the imminent closure of Heddon College at the end of the current term. And now, parents and carers hope their voices will be heard in Westminster too.

They say that the college – a post-16 area of Lampard Community School – is a safe environment for students with special needs who are not ready to attend a mainstream further education college.

And they have made their point in the form of a 150-signature petition that they have asked North Devon MP Nick Harvey to present to parliament.

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The petition is one of three collected in support of the Heddon. A petition started by the students has been signed by nearly 2,000 people, while an on-line appeal has 216 signatures.

“We are fed up being fobbed off, lied to and not getting anywhere so we decided to hold a peaceful demonstration in Barnstaple,” said Northam mum Sharon Tyres, whose 16-year-old autistic daughter was due to start Heddon in September.

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“My daughter has had a complete meltdown at the news. She doesn’t understand what’s happening and it’s come out in all forms of aggression and anxiety.

“She just wouldn’t be able to cope at Petroc. She’d be destroyed there physically and emotionally.”

Another mum, Paula Ellis from Woolsery, said her son Thomas had already tried Petroc but the college had told her it was unable to meet his needs.

“He started Petroc in September 2010 but by Easter we had to remove him. He had a physical and mental breakdown, partly due to the environment of the college and partly because the ‘bridging’ courses he did were unsuitable.

“One was not challenging enough and the other was too challenging and the college’s solution was to reduce his timetable from five to three days a week.

“Petroc is very good for the people it works for; but it didn’t work for my son.

“Heddon offers something in between. We took it one step at a time but going to Heddon was like night and day. I got my son back and he is really shining there.

“We now have no alternative but to find an out-of-county specialist residential college which will cost around �120,000 instead of �13,000. I don’t know how he’s ever going to cope; he’s never been away from home before.

“Thomas is devastated and very confused about what’s going to happen. He struggled through the mainstream school system and Heddon is the only place he’s wanted to go to. He’s happy there. He can relate to other people and it shows in his demeanour.”

As 17-year-old daughter Jade handed over a petition at Nick Harvey’s constituency office in Barnstaple, tearful Braunton mum Louise Richards, said: “In the time Jade spent at Heddon I feel like I’ve got my daughter back. We need Heddon.”

Last week, the Gazette reported that Mr Harvey had met with Government Ministers to urge them to intervene and save the college.

This week, Mr Harvey told the Gazette that the fight continued.

“I have been so impressed at the campaign that staff, parents and pupils have run,” he said.

“The college find themselves in a ridiculous situation. Funding to stay open can’t be found, but much more money to send some of the pupils into residential education can, simply because it comes from a different “pot”.

“I am working closely with the college to ensure that the government listens to their case, and I am hopeful that there is still a way forward to ensure that these young people get the best education possible.”

In March, the Gazette revealed how the college faced closure after funding from Devon County Council was withdrawn, and an application to become an Independent Specialist Provider was turned down by the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA).

The college was set up in partnership with the county council in 2009 as a pilot project for 16-19-year-old students with complex learning and medical difficulties, such as autism and cerebral palsy. It provides vocational and social skills training and has been praised by local schools, parents and students alike.

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