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Roman villas and Iron Age forts: Welcome to Cardiff West

“That was the beginning of Cardiff right here.”

Willmott Dixon project leader Richard David is not working on any old high school, as he reveals how Cardiff West Community High sits on an area of incredible archaeological significance.

The remnants of the largest Roman villa in Wales are a stone’s throw from the project, as is one of the biggest Iron Age hill forts in the whole of Britain. “I was amazed by the context of the site,” he says.

It’s quite a backdrop to this Open Doors tour of a school that will be one of Cardiff’s largest upon completion, catering for around 1,200 secondary students as well as more than 300 sixth-formers.

The project will bring together Michaelston Community College (previously based two miles to the west) and Glyn Derw High School, which has been demolished to make way for the new development.

While the site’s history is fascinating, the scheme’s impact on the local community here and now is what’s generating the most interest – so much so that Welsh Government finance secretary Mark Drakeford is among today’s visitors.

Unlike its ancient past, this area’s recent history is less positive. “It has suffered decades of blight and a lot of false dawns,” Mr Drakeford explains.

“If you were an aspirational parent around here, you would have fought like anything for your child not to come to the old school. With this new school, it will be the opposite.”

As we make our way out onto the site, a group of school children on the tour ahead of ours return to the site office. There’s an encouraging amount of excited chatter amongst them – with many too distracted by what they’ve seen to heed their teacher’s call to wipe the mud off their boots.

Willmott Dixon is 28 weeks into a 78-week programme on this £31m project, with the team delivering three separate buildings: the main teaching block for secondary students aged 11-16; another catering for the sixth-formers and other post-16 students; and a sports block. 

The new school features a standardised open-plan design over two storeys, with its stand-out facilities set to include science labs featuring specialist equipment and a 3G sports pitch with its own 100-seater stand.

Mr Drakeford, who as well as his cabinet position is also the assembly member for Cardiff West, is passionate about what the school will do for the community – and the importance of initiatives such as Open Doors. “The key thing from the local community’s point-of-view is just to see it happening,” he says.

Willmott Dixon is doing a significant amount already in the community, including local employment, training and engagement with schools – even providing the Christmas trees for local primaries last year. The contractor is also employing seven people who would have otherwise not had a job due to the demolition of the previous school, upskilling them at the same time.

“I was saying to my kids last night: education opens up so many doors,” says project leader Mr David. “And once you’ve got it, it can’t be taken away.”

A reminder that Open Doors is not just about high-profile projects and spectacular engineering; it’s also an opportunity to show how meaningful a construction career can be.

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