THE new £21million Castle Tower School in Ballymena has been officially opened much to the delight of staff and pupils.
Principal, Raymond McFeeters, said the event on Wednesday of last week marked the end of a “long journey” towards acquiring a new school.
The long-awaited state-of-the-art building comes 11 years after Castle Tower was established from the amalgamation of Ballymena's three special schools Dunfane, Beechgrove and Loughan in September 2007.
It wasn't until 2012 that the then Education Minister John O'Dowd announced that funding was available for a new school.
Castle Tower opened its doors at the start of the new school term on Wednesday, September 6 and currently has an enrolment of 306 pupils.
It 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 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.
Mr McFeeters, addressed those in attendance at the official opening, including Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Lindsay Millar and Council’s Chief Executive, Anne Donaghy, MLA's Mervyn Storey and Robin Swann, members of Castle Tower School Board of Governors and representatives of the Education Authority.
He said it had taken a long time to acquire a new building but it was “worth it”.
Mr McFeeters added: “We now believe we have one of the best schools in the country. We believe our young people are very special and we believe this building is very special. It makes a statement to the wider community about the importance of our children.
“It also raises the self esteem of our pupils and provides them with a school environment to be proud of. Today is about thanking lots of people and also celebrating our wonderful children.”
He thanked all the staff at Castle Tower for their “patience through the process” and always “putting our young people first”.
He also thanked the Board of Governors and everyone involved in making the new school a reality.
Mr McFeeters also paid tribute to Rev Robert Coulter, Chair of the Board of Governors, who was instrumental in campaigning for a new school.
He said “Without his vision, persistence and constant lobbying at Stormont we probably would not be sitting here today celebrating this wonderful building. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”
Throughout the morning guests, including former Education Ministers, John O'Dowd and Peter Weir as well as Permanent Secretary in the Department of Education, Derek Baker, were treated to performances from the school's foundation drummers, primary choir, secondary choir and secondary drummers.
Mr Baker, said £21 million had been invested in the local community and the school should be used as an “exemplar of what is possible”.
He continued: “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.”
Meanwhile, speaking after the official opening, Mayor Councillor Lindsay Millar, said: “It gives me great pleasure to welcome the official opening of Castle Tower’s new school – a crucial investment in the education and development of our young people.
“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.
“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.”
Anne Donaghy, 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.
“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.”