The trust was formed in 1973 to govern Downlands College, a special needs school catering for young people with dyslexia and dysgraphia. The pioneering school was set up by Professor Z M (Zita) Albes, a Yugoslav child psychologist trained at Budapest university. Prior to emigrating to the UK in 1969 she had spent many years working for the United Nations on rehabilitating young mentally and socially handicapped refugees. Earlier attempts to establish a school at Croydon had faltered due to local objections.
The school opened on 3 July 1972 at the small former Downlands Hotel, hence our name, on the seafront at 197 Marine Drive, Saltdean, Brighton.
The building had been purchased for £35,000. An article in the Brighton and Hove Gazette on 29 July recorded that “… regular B&B customers still knock, and look crestfallen when they are turned away – the new school hides its pioneering work behind the comfortable muddle of family life.”
Downlands was the UK’s first school to specialise in helping dyslexia patients. It started with 5 pupils but would soon reach 20 boarders and 10 day children. The experienced schoolmaster John Egford was appointed Headmaster. A former student, Kim Little (then Fiona Jones), wrote fondly: “I was a student at Downlands College in 1973/74. I was 12 when I first went to Downlands, and I was there for two school years. Professor (Albes) had regular meetings when we all sat and discussed things and particularly any behavioural issues, etc. Educationally my strongest memories are of Professor giving us a lecture about how a part of our brain is not working, and she had a poster with a workman asleep on a chair with his feet up, and how the other parts of our brains had to do the work.
I was able to go back to normal schools after Downlands and complete O levels. When I finished school I got a City and Guilds Hotel Front Office Certificate and worked in London and then New York. When I finished work due to my pregnancy with my eldest child I was Front Office Manager of a five star hotel. Both my daughters are brilliant scholars, and both got full scholarships to top US colleges, so they have both luckily dodged the dyslexia issue.
Some things are still a struggle, in fact maybe moreso now I am getting older. Reading, however, is still a huge joy. I think the lack of confidence and confusion that dyslexia causes is as big a hindrance as the dyslexia itself. I think Professor’s tutoring helped me, but I also feel that the support and confidence I received at Downlands was a huge assistance in helping me cope after I left. Thank you very much.”
More recently Anton Aaron, a student 1977-81, wrote: “I started at Downlands in September 1977, at 15, through to July 1981. I was amongst the first students to sit the former CSE exams. Teaching staff included Miss Ennis (Geography), Ms Nee Smith (Modern History), Ms Packham (English) and Mr White (Maths). One person who seemed to be neither staff nor student was Sallyanne Shirley, the daughter of Lord Ferrers, at that time a government minister. At the time I arrived in Haywards Heath, Prince Tomislav of Yugoslavia was an active team member. In recent times, I have been reunited with people I knew prior to Downlands. If there are any ex-students out there, I shall be delighted to get in touch.”
The trust was incorporated as a company in 1975 and registered as a charity in 1977. As time went by, the school expanded and boys were bedded out at night in a Rottingdean nunnery, a brisk walk away! Most pupils were local authority-funded, a few being paid for by parents. The need for larger premises became unavoidable. These were identified in a Victorian building set in 12 acres of land at Isaacs Lane, on the edge of Haywards Heath. The setting had formerly housed a preparatory school, Wick and Parkfield, whose unusual name arose from a merger of two separate schools. It had been operating for some 70 years, was run latterly by a Bill and Pat Halstead, and closed in 1974. The site was initially taken, in 1975, on a 2-year lease followed by an agreement to buy at £250,000.
The facilities of Downlands College now included a horticultural unit run by Mike Laker, brother of the late airline entrepreneur Freddie, huge greenhouses enabling the college to be largely self-sufficient regarding vegetables and soft fruits. There were also playing fields and a training kitchen, supplemented by work experience at the Cuckfield Hospital kitchens. Indeed horticulture and catering were the main focus of the school’s vocational training. With 22 bedrooms, the school could now take up to 33 pupils, 24 boys and 9 girls. Qualifications available, through collaboration with local colleges and firms, included CSEs, GCEs, joint predecessor to today’s GCSEs, and City & Guilds. There were plans in 1980 for students to enter for the National Certificate in Horticulture. The horticultural unit took over and developed a former nursery site, kindly let at a nominal rent by a Mr and Mrs Midgely, at Wivelsfield Green. Pupils’ journalistic skills were enthusistically applied to producing an in-house magazine, the Downlands Argus (“15p”).
Notable events in the school’s history included featuring in a Southern TV report in 1975, a visit by Richard Burton, being donated a mini-bus by the Lions Club and a fund-raising ball at the Cafe Royal attended by Princess Michael of Kent and featuring The Three Degrees. By July 1978, at the time of an open day and hosting a conference on violence in society, there were 47 pupils. Some children returned successfully to mainstream schools.
Downlands College (letterhead: “Downlands College at Parkfield – Haywards Heath 2190”) continued until 1985 when, in common with many other independent special schools following the 1978 Warnock Report and consequent 1981 Education Act, crucial local authority sponsorship was curtailed. Few if any pupils, oddly, had been sponsored by the host county of West Sussex, but now their numbers fell below the break-even point of 25. Financial difficulties, arising from the large mortgage funding the 1982 purchase, took hold. The college closed on 31 March 1985, the 32 staff losing their jobs. Ironically this was not long after gaining Department of Education approval, which in better circumstances would have enabled a more sustainable pupil roll. The land and premises were sold and the proceeds invested.
Since the school’s closure the investment income has been used to support schools and other charities providing for young people with special needs. In the last ten years, the charity has awarded grants totalling some £250,000 to over 70 organisations and causes.
Zita Albes was decorated for her work with UNESCO and the United Nations. A strong advocate of early screening for dyslexia, she developed Convaid, a battery-operated speech synthesizer for people with speech impediments. Marketing was taken up by an Eastbourne manufacturing company. She also wrote several books on dyslexia. These included “The Child Under Stress – Dyslexia?”, a guide for parents and teachers on simple screening tests for the condition early in life. Without her initiative there would have been no Downlands Educational Trust.
John Egford remained Headmaster to the end, then became Secretary of the trust for many years, only retiring at nearly 85 in 2008. He died in 2013. The old school building in Isaacs Lane is now Downlands Park, a BUPA nursing home, pictured above.
Our thanks to past pupils Mark Harris, Kim Little and Anton Aaron, Carole and the late John Egford, former staff member Peggy Chandler (nee Jerome) and the management and staff of BUPA’s Downlands Park Nursing Home, for sharing recollections and data contributing to the above.