A special event was held at Castle Tower School in Ballymena this week to mark the official opening of the new £21million state of the art education complex.
Castle Tower School caters for pupils aged three to 19 with severe, moderate and physical learning difficulties and is the only school in the Ballymena area for children with special educational needs.
The school currently has an enrolment of 306 pupils and follows an amalgamation of Loughan School, Dunfane School, and Beechgrove School in the town.
In June 2014, a business case was approved to build a new replacement school to provide suitable permanent accommodation on a single site on the former Ballymena Girls’ and Boys’ High School at Trostan Avenue.
Contractors commenced work on site in October 2015 and the new school was completed in August 2017 and opened to pupils at the start of the new term last September.
The new school has a range of specialist facilities on a 13 acre site including a hydrotherapy pool, sensory courtyards and rooms, play facilities and a full height climbing wall.
Specialist home economics kitchen, science labs and art rooms sit alongside a college style lecture theatre, social areas and a music room.
Officially opening the new school, Derek Baker, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education said: “It always gives me great pleasure to be able to officially open any new school, knowing the real and positive change it brings to the daily life and operation of a school for the teachers, pupils and wider school community.
“This involves a significant investment of around £21million into this community and the new accommodation will provide Castle Tower with the much needed, state of the art, new school for the current pupils and future generations.
“I want to congratulate all those involved in the planning, design and delivery of this school. In particular, I would like to wish the pupils, the staff and the school management every success as you embark on a new chapter in your new school.”
The Mayor of Mid and East Antrim also congratulated the “inspirational” principal, staff, pupils and board of governors at Castle Tower at the school’s official opening.
“Castle Tower School is a very special place which makes an incredible contribution to the lives of children and families in our borough, under the leadership of principal Raymond McFeeters and Chairman of the Board of Governors Rev Robert Coulter,” Cllr. Millar said.
She added: “The pupils, staff, governors and all of those who play their part in what is an extremely tight-knit community are to be commended for their unrelenting efforts and commitment, and I feel so proud as Mayor to see their ambitious plans and vision to create one of the UK’s top special schools brought to fruition.
“Castle Tower is a place where our young people can fully realise their potential and learn and develop skills for life.
“The education provided is of the highest standard and the new state-of-the-art facilities further enhance and promote this unique learning environment.
“By giving our children the necessary tools to prepare them for later life, and embracing a culture of lifelong learning, Mid and East Antrim can cement a reputation as an innovative, creative place where everyone can avail of opportunity.
“The foresight and innovation of those behind this incredible project is breath-taking and we are hugely privileged to have a facility such as Castle Tower School in our Borough.”
Anne Donaghy, Chief Executive of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, whose daughter Andrea has Down’s syndrome, said: “The community at Castle Tower is one in which an ethos of respect and tolerance runs throughout every aspect of school life.
“I applaud all of the staff who nurture the young people every day and are committed to ensuring the pupils’ schooldays are an extremely rewarding and happy time of their lives.
“All of us want to give our young people the very best start in life, as set out in Mid and East Antrim’s Putting People First Community Plan.
“It is our vision that families throughout our Borough are engaged, empowered and supported in the education of our children.
“There must be no barriers to any of our citizens achieving their potential and realising their goals.
“My very best wishes to the pupils, staff and governors at Castle Tower with this exciting and hugely important new chapter in their history and that of this cherished school.”
North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey hailed the new school as “a credit to the education community”.
“Castle Tower School was in much need of the building which reflected its strong ethos of supporting children with severe learning difficulties and disabilities,” Mr Storey said.
He added: “It truly is a fabulous building fit for the 21st century, able to adapt to the changing needs of those who enter the school and seek an education there.
“The vision of the Principal, Mr Raymond McFeeters, Chairman of the Board of Governors Rev Robert Coulter and all the members of the Board of Governors, to see a new building on this site is down to their unwavering dedication to the children and young people who are cared for at the school. Every member of staff and the parents at Castle Tower, deserve recognition for their continued perseverance to fight for adequate educational provision in Ballymena.
“I would also thank previous Education Ministers, Peter Weir and John O’Dowd for all their help in securing approval and funding for the school and for the many times they facilitated our requests for meetings and updates as we lobbied on behalf of the school.
“As the school year draws to a close this was a wonderful occasion as a new chapter at Castle Tower begins. To see the excitement of the children and young people who clearly love their new surroundings was a real joy to experience. I wish them well in their new school and look forward to visiting on many more occasions.”