Words and Pictures by Emily D M Robinson
Last year, on Friday 11 December, the John Townsend trust announced to the staff of The Royal School for the Deaf in Margate that they were going into administration.
This closed the school with immediate effect, putting 300 out of its 500 staff members out of work.
More importantly, this left children and young adults – many with very complex learning and hearing difficulties – without the care and support they had received from this institution.
The closure meant the loss of the school in Margate, the Westgate College and many other educational services staff provided for the students.
Subsequent weeks brought the gradual closure of the school’s residential services.
55 deaf children were catered for at the Margate school, while Westgate provided services to young adults aged between 19 and 23.
Despite over 11,000 people signing an online petition in an effort to save the school, the closure has proceeded.
But people’s passion for the welfare of the school’s students has brought signs of hope for the future.
One ex-member of staff, Katherine Shonk, worked as a children’s resident support worker and was also assistant admin for the creative adults project (CAP).
She says: “I absolutely loved working at the school, everyone was so lovely and friendly! The children and adults from the school are absolutely amazing, and were always putting a smile upon my face!”
At the time of this interview, Katherine was still unemployed. But along with her CAP colleague Lucy Holley, and many other people who have connections with the school, she plans to re-start the programme.
The project aims to hugely improve the life skills of its students, and to incorporate a former gardening project that also took place at the school.
“For some children, adults and staff the school was their family,” says Katherine, “So it’s absolutely heart wrenching that the school has closed down and left some with very little!”
Katherine and Lucy have been putting together regular meetings to kick-start the project again.
I attended one of these meetings, and rather than being met with a sombre atmosphere, there was a jovial feeling to the proceedings.
The meeting, which took place in the Old Custom House in Ramsgate, covered everything from funding to potential locations.
It was attended by 33 people, including CAP members, former students and their parents, personal tutors and many more service workers and users.
“I’m gobsmacked by how many people have come today, it’s a really positive sign,” said Lucy.
On the schools closure, Lucy says: “We feel like the service users were abandoned, we were crying for them, not for ourselves – not one single tear was shed for ourselves.”
Taliah Urooj, who also worked in admin for the creative adults project, says: “I loved working at the school. The team I worked with were amazing, the adults we worked with were incredible!”
While these people are now working as volunteers trying to revive the project, Jonathan Hunt, who worked for the enterprise side of the school, is still currently employed – but with notice of redundancy to leave on January 31.
Jonathan says: “We have been a bit luckier than those at the school who were made redundant just before Christmas. We had all been aware for a few months that the school was struggling but no one knew about the financial problems… We were not aware that possibly millions were involved.”