Margate closure leaves deaf children with complex needs in limbo: Jessica

jessica counts money

Local authorities and parents have been struggling to find alternative schools for children who had been attending the Royal School for Deaf Children since it closed down suddenly in December. Some of these parents talk to Kevin Watson about how they only heard about the school’s closure by email on the day it shut its doors and how their children have been faring since.

“The way the school’s closure was handled was brutal”

Florence Njue and Simon Howard’s 15-year-old daughter Jessica started at the Royal School for Deaf Children last September, having moved from Penn School which has also since closed.

For Florence Njue and Simon Howard the two months since the closure of the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate have been some of the most stressful they can remember.

The pressures of balancing full-time jobs, searching for a new provision for their daughter Jessica and providing some home tutoring for her whilst trying to maintain a normal family life have taken their toll.

They still have to deal on a daily basis with the fallout from the sudden closure of the UK’s oldest deaf school in December.

Florence says she was “incredibly shocked and devastated” when it was confirmed just before Christmas that the school was to close.

“We had been through the difficult process of moving her to a setting we were confident better understood her needs and were happy with the progress she was making.

“Jessica was very confused about the closure of her school since staff did not get the opportunity to explain to the children about the closure. She appeared very sad when we went to collect her belongings but understood that she would not be returning to Margate.”

Jessica is 15 years old and loves walking in the woods with her parents. She has CHARGE syndrome, is deaf and has residual vision.

Her parents hope that by the time she reaches 16 in May they will have found a suitable provision at which she can continue her education.

From the age of two and a half Jessica went to Frank Barnes Primary School in Camden. “She was extremely happy there.” Her younger sister also attended a nursery drop-in there as well.

“At Frank Barnes they worked really hard and set a bit of a precedent although they hadn’t worked with her level of complex needs before. Their willingness to work with us and other professionals was remarkable,” says her mother.

Moving schools

Jessica left Frank Barnes at 12 and became a boarder at Penn School in Buckinghamshire. But eventually it became apparent that things were not working out there in terms of her deafness and complex needs.

The parents made the decision to have another look at RSDCM. “We had visited Margate previously but at the time we didn’t think it was right for Jessica” said Florence. “But when things weren’t working out at Penn we went back and there were a number of things that had changed that made it more appropriate for her.”

“We felt that Margate was where she was going to have her education delivered appropriately for her”

“They had a sizeable proportion of CHARGE and had started working with external professionals which was really important to us. They also worked a lot with SENSE. They were not arrogant enough to think they knew everything about complex needs themselves.”

As it happens Penn closed in July last year due to financial management issues after having been in special measures for two years. The first Florence and Simon knew about that was when they received an email on the first day of Jessica’s two weeks’ introduction to RSDCM in July.

Jessica started at the RSDCM in September last year and her parents were sure they had made the right decision. “Jessica presented as confident and happy at Margate. She seemed very independent and at home at the residence. The weekly feedback we received indicated that Jessica was learning and progressing well at Margate. Importantly, she was being challenged.” said Florence.

Staff understood her complex needs which was a major relief after the challenges we had had with her needs not being understood in her previous educational setting

“It was evident that she was making progress in her communication and her learning. Staff understood her complex needs which was a major relief after the challenges we had had with her needs not being understood in her previous educational setting.”

“When we were there in July a renowned international presenter on deaf-blindness and CHARGE syndrome was at the school. This showed a commitment to learning more about this rare syndrome in order to meet the complex needs of this group of children.

“Staff did not make assumptions about Jessica on the basis of her presentation or her syndrome. They were aware that children with CHARGE syndrome all present very differently and assessed her needs as an individual with CHARGE rather than as a sum of her diagnoses.”

Domino effect

In November news broke of the closure of an adult services project at the Margate site. Parents were sent a letter of reassurance saying that it was not going to impact on children’s services.

But behind the scenes the domino effect that would lead to complete closure had started with the ending of that one adult services project.

The realisation that this was happening arrived when a parent of an adult who had CHARGE contacted Simon and said she had heard that the school might have gone into administration. Research on the internet later that evening appeared to confirm that there was indeed cause for concern. In fact news had been leaked to some media outlets even before the staff had been spoken to. On 9 December, the parents received a letter confirming the school was in administration but that the administrators would do their best to keep it open or at the very least make sure any closure happened in a planned way. Two days later the school closed for good.

Staff had waved children off for the weekend at 1pm on Friday 11 December unaware that two hours later parents would receive an email saying the school was closed with immediate effect and that they should not send their children back there on Monday.

Florence says: “I’d like to think people aren’t that devious but the way the closure was handled was brutal. The school was doing amazing work but that was significantly undone by this completely un-managed closure.”

Simon was one of the parents who joined the BDA and NDCS at a meeting with the minister of state for education in the hope of getting governmental support to keep the school open, but to no avail.

When they went back to the school to collect her belongings Florence and Simon noticed that Jessica seemed lost. “No matter how much we tried to explain, she didn’t seem to understand what was going on.

“Jessica is generally very quiet but we noticed after Christmas that she seemed fragile and was crying more than normal and seemed to be confused.

“The closure of the school left nothing for children like Jessica. We are seeing some of these same children currently being turned away from deaf schools which deem them too challenging for them. The Margate school had developed a specialism which meant that they were able to educate children with complexities that other schools cannot educate. It is a travesty that this school closed down.”

The closure of the school left nothing for children like Jessica. We are seeing some of these same children currently being turned away from deaf schools because they are seen as too challenging

Through it all they have been extremely thankful for the support and help of their local authority Special Educational Needs (SEN) case worker.

“Our SEN case worker has been amazing. We are incredibly lucky to have had the same case worker since Jessica started at Frank Barnes” said Florence.

“Our local authority have committed to ensuring she has a high level BSL support adult if we take up any interim offer but of course we are cautious as she would most likely be the only BSL user there.”

In the meantime her parents are doing their best to make sure Jessica has as much interim educational support as possible. “We are very lucky to have a friend who is a teacher of the deaf providing two days of teaching to Jessica up to the end of this term which is fantastic. However, this involves a four-hour round trip twice a week. We are committed to getting her there as at least she is getting good direct teaching in BSL.” The costs are met by their local authority.

“It will be hard to find a school that fully meets Jessica’s complex needs. We are looking at a couple of schools at the moment but they may not be able to offer her a place before September.”

Read about the impact of Margate closure on Archie and Sasha