Charlie Swinbourne: As Deaf schools like Margate close, the building blocks of the Deaf community disappear

Posted on January 7, 2016

The sudden closure of Margate Deaf School just before Christmas came as a big shock to not only the school’s community of pupils, parents and staff, but also to the wider Deaf community.

Margate was the UK’s oldest Deaf school, with the biggest history. And this closure wasn’t a one-off, but part of a growing trend.

As this Guardian story about the closure states, “the number of schools for the deaf has fallen from 75 in 1982 to 21 [today].”

Parents at the school have started a petition, but unless things change suddenly, the school’s 150 pupils are faced with finding alternative education.

Some may find similar provision in existing Deaf schools, but others may be placed in mainstream settings that had already been deemed unsuitable for them.

Deaf schools offer a specialised education, through trained Teachers of the Deaf, where one of the biggest benefits is that Deaf children are taught alongside Deaf peers who they can more easily socialise and communicate with.

I was taught in a mainstream environment – which for me, had its positives and negatives – but in 2007, I saw a friend’s home videos from when she attended a Deaf school which made me wonder whether a Deaf school would have given me a sense of belonging that I never felt in mainstream.

That led me to write this BBC Ouch article in 2010 about the meaning of Deaf schools. Here’s an extract:

As well as being places of education, deaf schools are where friendships are formed, where couples fall in love, where people take a journey from childhood to being an adult. Much like any other school, you might say. Except that deaf schools have an importance within the deaf community that goes beyond that.

Along with deaf centres and sports clubs, the schools are one of the key places that deaf people meet other deaf people, giving them the chance to later go on and become part of the deaf community.

For many, the schools represent a place where they first felt ‘normal’ among peers who faced the same problems they faced, and crucially, communicated the way they did. Many struggled in mainstream schools, yet when they were educated among other deaf children, felt as though they could express themselves for the first time.

It’s important to say that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to Deaf education.

All D/deaf children are different, and will have different educational, social and communication needs. For some children, with the right support, mainstream can work well, for others, Deaf schools are the best option.

An immediate issue as Deaf schools close is obvious: there being less options for the education of D/deaf pupils as a result.

With less deaf schools, placing D/deaf children in mainstream settings becomes more of a default choice. But we know that mainstream settings, and the support D/deaf children get there, varies hugely.

I know from personal experience that when D/deaf children are left out at school, there can be a huge sense of isolation, of educational opportunities passing them by, of their social development and confidence also being damaged.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the wrong setting, Deaf children find it impossible to truly be themselves. For example, in the Guardian’s story, a girl called Madeleine Molloy says:

“Before, I was in a normal mainstream school. For me it wasn’t good. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Before, I was a deeply unsociable person. I did not have friends. I was not outgoing. I kept myself to myself quite a lot.

“The way they were teaching me – I didn’t hear them. I didn’t understand them. Nobody was explaining or checking on me. Group conversations never worked for me because of the amount of noise.

“I felt like I was the dumbest person alive. I wasn’t going to pass my exams.”

Her parents realised she wasn’t thriving and an audiologist suggested it might be worth looking at a special school for the deaf. “I came here for a week and I absolutely fell in love with the school. I felt like I had finally found a place I could just be me. I didn’t have to crawl into my room and sit there and be quiet.”

As well as the personal consequences of the lack of educational options, there is a wider issue too, and that relates to the future of the Deaf community. The big ‘D’ in Deaf, incidentally, stands for a sense of pride in Deaf identity, use of BSL, and the belief in being part of a Deaf culture, rather than seeing deafness as a medical issue.

As Deaf schools close, less Deaf children get the chance to be educated together. If Deaf children don’t get the chance to mix with other Deaf pupils, it’s less likely that they’ll start to build a sense of positive Deaf identity, rather than seeing their deafness purely as a barrier, and a problem.

It’s often through friendships forged as pupils at Deaf schools that Deaf people found their first sense of a shared bond and of what a Deaf community might be – something that they can continue to be part of, and develop, later in life.

Of course it’s not just Deaf schools that are the building blocks of the Deaf community, it’s also Deaf clubs. Both have seen many closures and it makes you wonder what the effects will be 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

With the closure of schools like Margate, how many people who might have discovered the Deaf community could miss out on that chance?

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being an award-winning filmmaker. He directed the comedies The Kiss and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool, and his documentary Found, about people discovering the Deaf world, came out last year. As journalist, he has written for the Guardian and BBC Online,

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