Education8th December 2015

Deaf School that holds fond memories under threat of closure

Made job ready at Margate Deaf School - 94 years old Dennis Harris was taught skills that served him well through adult life

by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

Just yesterday, I was sitting down having a good old hand-wag with 94 years old Dennis Harris MBE. Still as bright as a button and in story-telling mood, Dennis was taking me back to his childhood, when as an 11 years old he contracted Scarlet Fever, the treatment for which left him profoundly Deaf. This side effect from the treatment in those days was no real surprise, Dennis recalling that the Doctor who was treating him, gave him a card with the BSL alphabet on it, saying to him that he might find it useful, even before his deafness had been properly diagnosed.

A bright, intelligent child, Dennis was due to take up a place at the Lewis Boys Grammar School, but upon being found to be Deaf, the school told his family that his entry to the school would have to be put back a year. Looking for options for his son’s education, Dennis’ father contacted a few people he knew, and a recommendation to send Dennis to the Royal School for the Deaf and Dumb in Margate was soon forthcoming.

A mere 7-hour journey from his family home in Bargoed, South Wales, Dennis’ parents sought and received support from the Local Education Authority for him to attend, with the council providing a chaperone for each train journey back and fore the school at the start and end of each term. It was a difficult decision for his family, with his mother in particular voicing great concerns. “I always remember my mother being angry about me going to the Deaf and Dumb School in Margate,” Dennis recalled, “You’re nor dumb, she used to say, as I had already developed speech before becoming Deaf.”

It was on the journey to Kent, that Dennis saw sign language being used for the first time. In a carriage with his chaperone, there were also three Deaf boys aged about 16, also from Wales travelling to the Deaf School in Margate. They sat and chatted in sign language the whole journey and Dennis was enthralled by it as soon as he saw it. Placed in the sick bay at the school when he first arrived, he threw himself energetically into learning the Deaf language, making his time as the school all the more beneficial and enjoyable.

With fond memories of the school, Dennis told me about their approach to getting the Deaf children there workplace ready. He was prepared for work in the printing business, with his learning also focused on English and Arithmetic. Dennis left the school at 16, well prepared for the work place and going straight into his first job as a printer. It was to prove a school taught trade that would serve him well throughout his adult life, ultimately leading to him owning his own printing company.

Learning today about the threat of closure of the Deaf School in Margate, I can imagine a sense of sadness washing over Dennis and all of the other Deaf students who went there. On the back of the closure of other Deaf schools, these are worrying times for Deaf education.

The Royal School for Deaf Children Margate was established in 1862. It was a branch of the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb which was developed by Reverend John Townsend to provide education for deaf children in 1792. The Reverend had been impressed by the intelligence shown by a young deaf boy in his parish, and found out there was no suitable school for him to attend. Supported by Henry Cox Thornton, the rector of Bermondsey and philanthropist and banker Henry Thornton, Reverend Townsend set out to provide free basic education for deaf children which would equip them for a trade. If Dennis is anything to go by, this approach to getting students work-ready, was to serve Deaf students well.

The John Townsend Trust, set up in 2008, now runs the Deaf School in Margate as well as the Westgate College, Community Living Services, Monkshill Farm Shop, Café and Butchery, Charity Shops, Blue Wave Hydrotherapy Pool and Gym Complex, Training Services and a Community Social Centre. The announcement of the Trust going into administration has already led to the redundancy of 120 staff amidst a threat from the administrators that unless a financial solution can be found soon, the School and College will face closure.

Geoff Rowley, partner at FRP Advisory and joint administrator said: "Our initial priority is the on-going provision of core services and care and the well-being of all of the John Townsend Trust's pupils and residents, their families and all those who access its carefully delivered education and specialist support services. Due to recent events we have unfortunately been required to make approximately 120 staff redundant with immediate effect.”

"Whilst The Royal School for Deaf Children Margate and Westgate College together have more than 250 years of history supporting children and young adults in need it is expected that unless a long term funding solution can be found that we shall have to focus on achieving the carefully planned closure of the school and associated services, working closely with local authorities, Kent County Council, staff, the families of the pupils and residents, OFSTED and The Care Quality Commission. In the meantime we shall explore all available opportunities to secure long term funding.”

There are 55 children currently educated at the Margate School and 55 young people aged 19 to 22 at Westgate College. Whilst it is believed their education and care needs will be met until the end of the term, their long term future has yet to be decided.

Having talked at length to Dennis yesterday about his school days at the Deaf School at Margate, and learning how influential the teaching there was on his life, the news about the prospects of the school after 153 years of existence, have come as quite a shock. Hopefully, the outcomes will be positive for all those caught up in the administration of the Trust.

Article by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

posted in Community / Education

8th December 2015