Work finally got underway this week on the long-awaited new school building for Castle Tower Special School in Ballymena.
Education Minister John O’Dowd cut the first sod at site of the new build at Trostan Avenue in the town on Wednesday.
The new Castle Tower school looks set to be the biggest special school in the United Kingdom, catering for the educational needs of 285 pupils in a state-of-the-art building set on a 13 acre site.
Castle Tower was established in September, 2007, following the amalgamation of the three special schools in Ballymena - Dunfane, Beechgrove, and Loughan.
The new building at Trostan Avenue, on the site of the old Boys’ and Girl’s Intermediate, will bring all three under one roof.
Funding for the much needed new school - which caters for pupils aged 3 to 19 with moderate to complex needs - was finally announced by the Minister in June 2012.
Speaking at the site on Wednesday, where he cut the first sod, Mr O’Dowd said: “It is a great pleasure to be here today to join the celebrations for the new school build.
“The start of construction work on this site represents an investment of circa £20million by my Department and this financial input will have a major impact on the school and the community and create many positive outcomes for both.
“Building work has commenced and over the coming months your new school will take shape.”
The new build for the school includes the provision of a hydrotherapy pool and medical and therapy rooms integrated into the design, all of which will offer the pupils facilities to promote their health and well-being.
Mr O’Dowd thanked the Principal, the Board of Governors and staff and pupils as well as the Education Authority and the architect and construction company.
He added: “This is an exciting period for all the pupils and staff. I have no doubt the new facilities will enhance the learning experience and ensure that Castle Tower is well equipped to deliver the curriculum for now and for future generations to come.
“Improving the schools’ estate remains a key priority for me. I will continue to seek the necessary funds to ensure that this area of work gets the attention it deserves.”
It is understood that until new accommodation is built, Dunfane and Beechgrove will continue to share a site at Frys Road.
Dunfane Campus caters for children with moderate learning difficulties in Key Stages 1-4, while Beechgrove caters for children with physical difficulties from pre-school to Year 7.
Loughan Campus, situated at Old Ballymoney Road, caters for children with severe learning difficulties at both primary and post-primary level.