The pioneering work of the Deaf Academy has been recognised with a prestigious national award this week. 

Two members of staff at the Exmouth-based Academy have won the esteemed Pearson golden national teaching award category Lockdown Hero – Learner and Community Support which was a special award created for 2021. The award was for the innovative work in setting up online teaching and support during the height of the pandemic for the Academy students. And the announcement of the awards was made live on BBC’s The One Show. 

Teachers Matt Jenkins and Joanna Fison were presented with the gold awards by former Casualty actress Gabriella Leon, who is Deaf herself. She surprised the pair by turning up at the Academy after pretending she was in a studio in London. The awards were then presented to the stunned teachers in front of students and colleagues at the Academy. 

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: 

“I would like to congratulate Matt Jenkins and Jo Fison for this recognition of their amazing work and dedication to their students. Winning one of these awards is a terrific achievement and is testament to Matt and Jo’s skill, commitment and passion for teaching. 

“We are lucky enough to have some of the best teachers in the world and I would like to thank every single one of our education staff for their hard work supporting children and young people, especially during the pandemic.” 

During the national lockdown there was an increase in anxiety levels amongst the Deaf community due to the lack of access to key coronavirus information at government briefings. The Deaf Academy team created an Online Academy, Spring Camp and developed a platform “Ask Deaf Teachers” to ensure information about the pandemic was clear and easily accessible for Deaf young people in particular those with additional needs. 

Teacher Joanna Fison said: To win a national award like this, felt absolutely amazing. Matt and I were very emotional – there were tears and laughter, it didn’t feel real at all. We’re so glad we got to share that moment with all our colleagues, and of course our amazing students. I look back at our time in lockdown with mixed feelings. To quote Dickens (badly!) …it was the best of times, it was the worst of times! None of the team had ever worked so hard, but all the struggles and challenges were undoubtedly worth it in the end. We created something really valuable for our young people in an unprecedented crisis and we’re really grateful we’ve been able to share our experiences with the wider deaf community and others. However, the Online Academy and ‘Ask a Deaf Teacher’ were just a natural progression of the magic that happens every day here at the Deaf Academy. 

“If you would have told me 10 years ago when I first started losing my hearing that I would go on to win a national teaching award, I would have never believed it. I have learned very quickly that #DeafCan.” 

Joanna continued: “For us it was always about the learners. They deserved the best we could give them – and we were ready to take a leap of faith educationally and to do something radical to make sure everyone had access to learning and to the Deaf community which is so important to all of us.” 

Matt Jenkins, who is the Deaf Academy’s lead BSL teacher, set up a YouTube channel during lockdown which clearly outlined the important information children needed to know to ensure they knew what coronavirus was and how to keep safe. Called ’Ask a Deaf Teachers’, it was a resource not only for Deaf Academy students, but was used by hundreds of Deaf children around the UK.  

He said: “During the announcement I couldn’t quite believe it. It didn’t register at first. I was lip-reading Gabriella and she signed ‘gold’. I thought I had misunderstood her or made a processing error. In my mind I thought we were talking about the silver award, it wasn’t until the students handed me the gold award that it finally sank in. What a whirlwind of emotions! I couldn’t stop crying. Everyone was crying, students and staff. It was a very special moment for us. These were the students who had experienced the online academy and the lockdown first-hand, so it was great for us as an Academy and as our own Deaf community to all be there together to experience winning the national teaching award”. 

He added: “This is a huge achievement not just for me but the entire Deaf Community. We’ve come a long way in Deaf education. If you look back to the 1880 Milan Conference which introduced a ban on signing within schools for the Deaf, my job would, at the time, be totally prohibited. Back then, so many Deaf people lost not only their jobs but their lives from depression and loss of culture.  

“I grew up in an era where Deaf people were forced to learn orally. Because of this, I lost out on so much information and so many opportunities. I’ve come such a long way and that’s because I was brought up by strong Deaf role models in my Deaf community. When I think about winning the national teaching award, I think back on past generations and everything they’ve been through. This award isn’t about me. This award is for the generations of Deaf people that have been fighting for our culture and our rights.” 

When Matt Jenkins isn’t inspiring young people in the classroom, he’s working on his Design-Based Research. Matt has a research scholarship for his PhD at Exeter University where he is developing written sign language to enhance the rich culture of Deafness.  

Dame Angela Pedder, Chair of Trustees for Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education, responsible for the Deaf Academy, said:  

“The charity aims to help deaf young people realise their full potential as individuals and members of their communities and society as a whole, and to educate the general public in the needs and capabilities of Deaf people with a view to achieving greater integration between Deaf and hearing communities. This award demonstrates what is possible. The lockdown presented many difficulties for us all, something which was even more challenging for our students. We are extremely proud of Joanna and Matt who totally deserve this recognition, as do all our hardworking Academy staff who collectively ensured all our students were fully supported throughout lockdown.” 

“At the heart of this are our students, who were incredible throughout the lockdown. Our staff gave them support, but they were engaged and enthusiastic and embraced this new way of learning.” 

The Academy, which provides education and residential accommodation for students aged from five to 25, many of whom have additional needs, opened the doors to its new state-of-the-art premises in Exmouth in September last year. Since then, it has won a total of six different national and regional awards and has been shortlisted for a further four in recent months. 

The awards the Academy has won to date include:  

  • Pearson’s gold National Teaching Awards
  • NASS Innovation Award
  • Three Education Estates Award
  • Project of the year (over£5million)– Michelmores Property Awards 

And it has also been shortlisted for a TES FE Award, a British Construction Industry Award, and the AJ100 Award. 

Sylvan Dewing, principal of the Deaf Academy, said: “It is amazing to reflect on the last year and very rewarding to have received both nominations and awards over this period. This really is down to the incredible team we have here at the Academy who always put the needs of our students first, so I would like to thank them for their dedication and commitment to always providing the best education and experience for our students.”