‘Devastation’ at closure of specialist Lighthouse School in Margate

Northdown House Photo Frank Leppard

A long-serving teacher and a parent have both spoken of the shock and devastation at the closure of Margate’s special educational needs Lighthouse School.

The independent school, based at Northdown House in Northdown Park, catered for youngsters aged 8-16 with social, emotional and mental health difficulties. Almost all pupils had an education, health and care plan and approximately half of the pupils on roll were children in care.

The school, which first opened in 2005, was owned by Acorn children’s homes group. There is a second property in Clarendon Road but this is no longer in school use.

Around 20 staff were informed of the closure, and their redundancy, in June. They spent the following month finding new placements for around 25 children, although three are still without a new school.

‘It was their safe haven’

Pauline Hambleton had worked at the Lighthouse School for 10 years until it closed last week.

The Palm Bay nan and great-nan said: “We were told on June 5 that we were all being made redundant, the whole staff team, and the kids had to go to new schools.

“There seemed to be a total disregard for staff having to find new jobs and all these vulnerable kids having to go to new places. I just could not understand why they were closing an SEN school.

“Our last Ofsted had not been good but we had built it all up and we were about to get a good Ofsted again. The day we were told we were being made redundant, Ofsted had been due to come in the following day but Acorn Homes were adamant about shutting the school.

“We were told it was because Thanet council was putting up the rent at Northdown House and it was not financially viable any more.

“We had lots of kids that were waiting to start with us and we were due to start a sixth form. We were going to take over the whole building, as far as I know everything was signed and sealed, so I don’t know what happened to that.

“I can’t understand why they would do this, leaving us all in limbo and telling vulnerable kids there is no more school. The kids came every single day, it was their safe haven. We even got some through GCSEs.”

Making good memories

Pauline, who teaches animal care and is a trained dog handler, has secured a new job at Ripplevale specialist school in Deal, alongside three of her colleagues. However there are still a handful of Lighthouse staff who have not managed to find new jobs.

Pauline said: “I will be retiring in a couple of years but I am so angry about the young staff with young families to provide for. And it was so upsetting for the kids.”

Despite the upset Pauline and all the other staff were not only determined to find appropriate schools to take the youngsters but also to give them good memories before they left.

On the penultimate day of the school all the staff organised a prom for the pupils and the following day children and parents/carers were invited to a coffee and croissant morning.

Most of the pupils have been offered placements at schools including Ripplevale, Great Oaks and Cross Keys.

Ofsted

The school received an inadequate Ofsted rating in 2021 and there have been questions over whether this was the reason for closure but Pauline said that is incorrect as the school was about to be regraded as good. A monitoring inspection in February 2022 and again this January concluded all necessary standards had been met and “extensive improvements had been secured.” The report noted a new headteacher and new safeguarding governor had also been put in place.

Finances

Pauline said: “Acorn Homes said the school wasn’t financially viable but even if it wasn’t, surely all the money made from the homes would allow them to keep this service for the kids even if it only broke even?”

The school gained income through day pupil fees which Ofsted lists as between £37,000 to £59,000 per year.

In a letter to parents in June Acorn Homes said the decision was being made due to “location and funding challenges.”

The letter say: “It is with a heavy heart that we are writing to inform you about a difficult announcement made to all staff.

“After careful consideration and evaluation, the company is in the regrettable position of having to consider the closure of the Lighthouse School with effect from the end of the Summer term, July 21.

“The primary reasons for this unfortunate decision are twofold: location and funding challenges. Both factors have created insurmountable obstacles that make it unsustainable for us to continue operations in the current environment.”

‘Upheaval, stress and upset’

Karen and son Alfie

Margate mum Karen Chantler says she is considering making a complaint to Ofsted or the Ombudsman over the closure.

Her son Alfie, who is 12 next month, had been at the school for almost four years.

Karen branded the closure “outrageous,” adding: “My son was affected and I feel very strongly about this. I will be contacting as many people as needs be to have Acorn Homes held accountable.

“The staff were told after school hours about the possible closure. An approximate 30 day window was given for a ‘decision’. In my opinion, Acorn Homes had no intention of keeping the school open.

“Parents including me, received another email on  July  7, stating the school was closing. Parents had only 6 weeks to find alternative placements.

“My son has now found an alternative school, but the impact of everything is untold. It is completely devastating especially for the children, including my son.

“During the consultations, staff tried suggesting to keep the Clarendon Road premises open -this was the only site that Lighthouse School had to begin with- but Acorn Homes refused this.”

Karen says parents were also aware the good grading Ofsted was due to be issued but a visit was cancelled due to the closure announcement.

She added: “The impact of the closure was not considered at all in my opinion. Staff had been made redundant and worst of all children lost their potential and actual school placements. In my very strong opinion, this is solely about the money.

“It has all caused nothing short of upheaval, stress and upset and is totally unfair.”

County Councillor Karen Constantine said: “This is terrible news. I know from my own County Councillor caseload of a number of children that were attending the Lighthouse School or were fighting to gain admission.

“I’m sure that many parents and carers won’t know which way to turn now, or where their child can attend a suitable school. I hope alternatives are in place. There is a concerning shortage of specialist, supportive educational establishments in Thanet and across East Kent.

“I hope this lamentable, and short-sighted decision can be quickly reversed. The closure of this facility will hit those who need it most very, very hard. I have written to KCC to see what can be done. I’m happy if any parents or carers want to contact me.”

Northdown Park and House under review

Northdown House Photo Frank Leppard

Northdown Park and its facilities, including Northdown House, is currently being reviewed by Thanet council.

The authority says until the review is complete there will be no decisions made about renewing leases at Northdown House or the Secret Jungle play area.

Thanet council owns the site. Your Leisure held the lease for Northdown House although the company is now based at Discovery Park and issued notice that it is terminating that lease.

The review will look at existing leases and uses for the facilities and buildings within the park.

Acorn Group Care Homes, which runs children’s homes across Kent, has been asked for comment on the Lighthouse School closure. The group was founded by Thanet man Mathew Bennett, who is also a NSPCC patron.

Council to carry out ‘full review’ of Northdown Park, including Northdown House and Secret Jungle

6 Comments

  1. Copied from above,“We were told it was because Thanet council was putting up the rent at Northdown House and it was not financially viable any more.

    Umm hey thanet council, please consider your action as an own goal.
    Hopefully the property will nay let to boater’s

  2. This is a sad situation for the SEN children and good staff teaching them. These kids need stability, structure and consistency to develop which they were getting but which now has been ruined for them. It could set them back years. Shame on those who don’t care enough through greed or alternative arrangements. Why couldn’t this good school be left in peace to make the lives of the kids better through their education and social skills?
    It seems nothing is sacred.
    How about reopening part of the Deaf school in Margate as a SEN school? Could a deal be done there?

  3. So Your Leisure AKA TDC were terminating the lease, others state rent going up…this has the TDC stink of corruption all over it.

    Hasn’t TDC announced Northdown House being reviewed, emptied or some such?

    TDC clearly have as yet secret final plans for Northdown House that don’t involve caring about good work or the vulnerable amongst us. Speaks volumes.

  4. Slightly of topics I thought northdown house was empty. When I drove passed it had a look of an empty building I didnt realise it was a school.
    Certainly in that picture it has a look of decline and unkempt building and flower beds.

  5. bro this was my school and it was really good but some dumb ass shut it down i will forever miss every one at that school espicially my class deal with alfie,anthony,jake,summer and harvey. and the teachers as well mr and ks

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