An educational pearl in the Isle of Wight oyster

By Richard Wright

Friday, March 6, 2009


An educational pearl in the Isle of Wight oyster

St Catherine's School principal Grenville Shipley. Picture by Laura Holme.

WIGHT LIVINGWHEN Grenville Shipley put together the dissertation that got him his masters degree, little did he realise he was re-inventing a wheel that was busily changing young lives for the better on the Isle of Wight.

He made the discovery that what he was postulating — that teachers should work alongside speech therapists in the classroom — was already happening at St Catherine’s School, in Ventnor.

He was lucky enough to be able to come and run the school. And it continues, under his stewardship, to effectively improve the communication skills of youngsters with disability.

Mr Shipley is 53 now and has been at St Catherine’s for 19 years. It is hard to imagine  he would want to be anywhere else in the world.

He remains surprised, that, despite the odds-defying achievements of his school, the idea remains out of the mainstream. Medical and educational disciplines continue, in the main, to operate separately.

As principal he runs a school that is nearly at its capacity of 70 students.

They have come from Paris and Rome, Andorra and Saudi Arabia. At the moment the farthest afield flies in to Southampton from Newcastle and other pupils make their way from the West Country and from Guernsey. Ten currently hail from the Island.

Because of the intensive nature of what it does and the fact many of the youngsters live in residential accommodation, in some of the higgle-piggle of terraced buildings either side of Grove Road, there are 100 staff employed there in all manner of roles.

They sustain the community and, quite literally, give the children a voice and therefore a chance in life.

St Catherine’s was built in the 1870s and for much of its life was the children’s adjunct of the nearby Royal National Hospital.

The Ventnor air helped children with TB, asthma and cystic fibrosis. These were truly “delicate” kids.

For much of its 10- year history of helping children, it was run by an Anglican sisterhood and for many years now it has been in the hands of a charitable trust, with a board of trustees.

As one of only a handful of non-maintained schools throughout the country and just four that operate just as it does, St Catherine’s relies on the fees paid by local authorities the length and breadth of the land, and fundraising, to keep it afloat.

It gets no government hand-outs and has to rely on results to survive.

If kids did not leave St Catherine’s with educational and vocational qualifications, increased confidence and self-esteem borne of the improvement in their ability to communicate, the school simply would not be there.

For such a pearl nestling in the oyster shell of the Island, it is not a school that has courted publicity.

To a large degree it has gone about its work effectively and quietly, so quietly that few outside Ventnor and those in charge of placing children there realise just what goes on.

That’s doubly surprising when it is considered that not only are many young Island lives transformed there but an estimated £2.5 million is transfused by the school each year into the Island economy.

St Catherine’s has been busy improving what it has got before embarking on its biggest project to date, replacing outdated blocks that were built where they were by a sisterhood with the imperative of using flat pieces of land, not because it fitted any masterplan.

St Catherine’s is snuggled away beneath the downs and on a steeply shelving site overlooking the English Channel that has challenged architects, just as they like to be challenged, with problems needing innovative solutions.

The fundraising push that will be needed will be considerable when it cranks into gear — it was £3 million when it gained planning permission a year ago. It will undoubtedly be no cheaper when it is built.

Not for the first time, trustees considered whether it was best use of resources to embark on an expensive building programme or to cut and run to a nice, flat, space.

There is an emotional attachment to St Catherine’s, but that is just part of it.

“We could be like other places. We could be in a mansion in its own grounds, or in a purpose-built facility miles from anywhere but it wouldn’t be Ventnor," says Mr Shipley.

“A move has been on the agenda of the trustees’ meetings more than once but, although it is difficult, though it will be expensive to build, the positives still outweigh the negatives.

“What is great about where we are is that young people can learn in the classroom about spending money in a shop and then they can walk down the road to one of the shops where people are aware and will help them.

“There are local employers who will take our young people on work experience, and as part of being introduced to independent living our 18-year-olds can go out to the pub nearby and we will know where they are and we will know they are reasonably safe,” he says.

The school’s director of development is Suzanne Hudson. She echoes the school community being part of the bigger picture.

“Students can go to the town to go trampolining or go to guides, brownies and other organisations and they come to us, too. Our involvement in Ventnor is fantastic,” she said.

St Catherine’s has just started an awareness campaign to spread the message beyond Ventnor. It wants people not only to know more about its work, but in tandem with that the disability of speech, language and communications, too.

Suzanne points to an e-mail she received after a recent reception to raise awareness that was staged at Newporrt's Quay Arts.

It said: “It seems extraordinary that such a facility should be on the Island but so little is known about it by those who live here.” That summed things up nicely.

An awareness reception is set to be staged in London on Tuesday, hosted by celebrated actress Susan Jameson as another bit of putting that right.

Guests will come away having learned about success stories.

They will learn of instructors like Kelly Burke, who has bubbled away with enthusiasm, teaching youngsters how to make things for nine years. They’ll hear of the gaggle of kids fascinated by the school’s new laser cutting and engraving machine.

They’ll probably get to know about retired teacher John Whatley, who has been at St Catherine’s for seven years. He learned bricklaying and building skills when he built his own house and is passing those on to pupils making terraced gardens and the like as part of GCSE work.

There’s ex-pupil Douglas Randall, who plays cricket for England’s Disability XI. There’s the youngster who plays rugby for Ventnor.

There’s Ryan, who simply says: “I am very happy here and I have made many friends.”

There’s Verity, who proudly humps a heavy bucket of mortar, turning down all offers of help, and there was Jimmy who left recently and is studying bricklaying.

When he came to St Catherine’s, Jimmy was 16 and determined to beat severe dyslexia. He also suffered from dyspraxia, affecting his motor skills.

The staff set about changing his “I can’t do that” response to challenges and Jimmy blossomed into a business ambassador for the school, who made public presentations and who, in his final year, was able to attend the Isle of Wight Festival on his own.

He had clearly been persuaded: “I can do that”.

Sally’s communication channels were blocked by a viral illness.

She was an introverted child with no confidence. Sally was probably going nowhere.

She still has the challenging disabilities she will carry with her for life, but St Catherine’s has imbued her with confidence to overcome. She does sport, has a large group of chums, is working towards her GCSEs and is looking forward to life.

Just what all of us deserve.


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