Gale`s View – The Royal School for Deaf Children – 23rd December 2015
Since 1792 The Royal School for Deaf Children has served the needs of deaf, deaf/blind., autistic and multi-handicapped children and, latterly, young adults. It has been a beacon of light and hope for many for whom there is little or no other provision and its highly skilled and dedicated staff have, over generations, offered a level of attention that has been truly remarkable. Over all of my thirty-two years in parliament I have attended sports days, carol services, nativity plays, open days and other events at the school and have witnessed at first hand the extraordinary level of affection and skill – recognised by the patronage of the Countess of Wessex – that a team of very highly trained men and women have deployed in the interests of some very damaged young people. The closure of the school is therefore, particularly for those for whom it is home for fifty-two weeks of the year, devastating.
If I have been uncharacteristically silent in relation to the future of the RSDC and the John Townsend Trust it is because I have not wanted to raise even a glimmer of false hope. To try to pretend that there is some kind of simple solution to the very complex financial difficulties faced by the charity would be both dishonest and unkind and would simply add insult to the injury that has already been inflicted upon a venerable and hitherto respected organisation.
I would not, though, wish anyone to think that we are not making every effort to try to salvage something from the wreckage that lies all around us at present. The Chairman of the Trust, Judge John Colyer, and I have made and continue to make every possible effort, up to and including the very highest level of government, to try to find a way through the morass that he unearthed when he again took up the reins of the charity having once retired from the job.
We knew, some weeks ago, that the school and the college faced very severe cash-flow problems. A highly critical and some would say unwarranted report following a CQC inspection of the facilities at Westgate College, the young adult wing of the RSDC, led to the termination of placements by Kent County Council and other local authorities and a consequent loss of revenue. The late and I would say scandalously late payment of fees due from some authorities for services provided, leading to tens of thousands pounds of unpaid bills made a bad situation worse and the demands of an underfunded pension scheme restricted the disposal of assets that might have provided the short-term lifeline needed to re-structure the enterprise and set it back on the road to recovery. John Colyer and I were, though, completely unprepared for the speed with which the Administrator moved in, closed down most of the operation, sent children home and made the best part of five hundred people redundant. I shall, later, wish to ask whether this was really necessary and whether it was right to deny us the couple of months that we thought that we had to try to launch a lifeboat to rescue the school and its students and staff.
The funding of this kind of special needs education has been chaotic. While the RSDC is unique there are other members of the National Association of Special Schools that have closed following have difficulties in securing funding, on a hybrid basis, from a system that is not remotely “joined up”. It appears that local authority children`s social services, the National Health service and the education authorities have competed with each other to see how best to pass the buck on a “not on my budget” basis while the needs of the people who matter – some profoundly disadvantaged young people and those who have been caring for them – take second place. That, for the future, is going to have to change.
In the meantime the core of the establishment remains open until final closure before the end of January. Last week a high level meeting, co-ordinated by the National Deaf Children`s Society and attended by the Minister of State for Education, senior civil servants, patients` representatives, Trustees, John Colyer and myself was held. It would wrong to say that the outcome was encouraging: faced with what is almost a fait accompli and, now, with very little time, it is difficult to see what may be done even though the Trust, while cash poor, is endowed with considerable assets. The Secretary of State for Education is aware of the situation and I have referred the matter, also, to Downing Street to see if there is a way to buy time to resolve the needs of the children and their families that have been so desperately effected by the closure.
What is clear is that if we cannot find a solution to the short and long term problems facing the RSDC then the Nation and the County will end up paying a lot more for a lot less in the way of provision, the expertise that has been concentrated on the Margate site will be dissipated, the site will be sold for development, the students and their families will be scattered across the country in a desperate search for alternative accommodation and treatment and we shall all be left wringing our hands and saying “If only……….”. I hope, because I have to hope, that even at this late stage that a legally and financially acceptable solution may be found. If there is a White Knight in shining armour out there somewhere he is needed now.
From Suzy and myself our very best wishes for Christmas and for a peaceful and a healthy New Year.