More than 50 deaf children have been left without a school after the sudden announcement of the closure of the Royal School for Deaf Children Margate after more than 220 years.
The school was forced to close after the charity that ran it, the John Townsend Trust, entered administration after running out of funding.
The financial situation appears to have been triggered by a whistleblower who raised concerns about residential facilities at Westgate College for Deaf People, a further education college that was run by the same charity on the same site in the centre of Margate.
Following an inspection last month, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) took “urgent enforcement action” to close the residential part of the college, although its educational services were not affected.
In a statement issued on 20 November, Deborah Westhead, CQC’s deputy chief inspector of adult social care and registration, said: “This is not a decision the commission takes lightly and these powers are only used in the most serious of circumstances.”
The school was not involved in the CQC action, but parents were told it had been closed for good after their children had returned home on Friday 11 December.
Administrators had decided that the school and college would have to be closed immediately “following a detailed assessment of the financial and operational position”, with the loss already of more than 350 jobs.
A petition appealing to Kent County Council to save the school has so far secured more than 22,000 signatures, while the British Deaf Association (BDA) has joined parents in calling for the closure to be reversed.
The special school, and an associated children’s home, catered for young Deaf and hearing-impaired pupils, many of whom had additional impairments.
Yesterday, the BDA, parents and other organisations met with schools minister Nick Gibb and Sir Roger Gale, the Tory MP whose constituency includes Margate, to discuss what could be done to help the school’s former pupils.
Dr Terry Riley, chair of the BDA and a former governor of the school, said his organisation was “saddened” by the closure of what was the oldest Deaf school still operating in the UK.
He said: “We are very grateful to the minister of state for schools for meeting with us yesterday to hear our case.
“We are continuing to do everything we can to help these vulnerable children and their families, as time is of the essence.”
He added: “As an ex-school governor, I can ascertain to the wonderful work the school and the staff gives to the children, many of whom have severe disabilities.
“These are children who have been marginalised by society for being ‘unteachable’. Yet, through the perseverance and dedication of the staff, parents and family, they had hopes.
“It is an extremely worrying situation for pupils and their families to see these hopes shattered.”
He said BDA would continue to work with the trust and its directors “to discuss how we can work together with them to ensure that this vital heritage is not lost forever”.
Riley said: “Importantly, we are still, even at this late stage, continuing to see if the decision can be reversed.
“We cannot let such an historic part of our heritage and culture be allowed to disappear from our lives.”
Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “I really hope that the closure will bring about a commitment from the local authorities involved to capacity-build their mainstream education settings to develop bilingual education.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We are closely monitoring the situation following the closure of the Royal School for the Deaf.
“Our priority is the wellbeing of the pupils and we are working with the local authority and administrators to ensure they are being found the best possible alternative placements.”
Geoff Rowley, one of the two joint administrators and a partner at FRP Advisory, said in a statement: “In reaching their conclusions about whether to continue with operations, the joint administrators have to look at the financial position while always ensuring that services only continue where they can be guaranteed to meet the requirements of the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted, aimed ultimately at keeping the right levels of care at the heart of the assessment.”
Patrick Leeson, Kent County Council’s (KCC) corporate director for education, said: “The closure of the Royal School for Deaf Children Margate is clearly a severe blow to the children at the school, their families and staff of the school and wider trust as well as the wider community in Thanet.
“KCC became aware in the summer that the trust was experiencing financial difficulty, and provided significant assurance at that point.
“In part, we supported the trust’s cash flow by ensuring that the payments for education were prompt.
“After a recent whistleblowing incident, CQC issued an immediate notice to close the residential accommodation on the Margate site on 19 November.
“The impact of the loss of revenue means the trust is no longer financially viable and KCC was notified on 7 December that it had gone into administration.
“It is clear that in its current state the trust, including the school, has significant pension liabilities as well as operational costs.”
He said the council had 20 students in the school and its sixth form, and had put in place arrangements to talk to all of those families, while it continued to “explore options for each child or young person”.
He said the council had been in contact with special schools in Kent, the local further education college, and social care colleagues, as well as “nationally known specialist schools”.
Picture: An art lesson at the school