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Controversy and residential special schools

Policy and Information leader, Jonathan Tautari returns to discuss the recent proposed residential special schools changes and the controversy they have caused.

The government is proposing to replace some residential special schools with intensive behaviour support services in a child’s local schools and home. The proposals have caused controversy. Some staff members at these schools and unions have accused the government of undermining parental choice and simply seeking to cut costs. The Ministry of Education has stressed that funding will remain the same and that more students will be supported. Parents are stuck in the middle with many unsure about exactly what is being proposed.

While this debate has captured a huge amount of attention, the numbers of young people currently supported is small. The four residential special schools in the proposal can provide a maximum of 223 places for students with complex behavioural, social and educational needs. Students can attend for up to two years. McKenzie Special School in Christchurch and Westbridge Residential School in Auckland, however, exclude students with disabilities. So there are only about 100 places for students with disabilities at residential special schools at any one time. The average cost of a residential special school placement to the government is $84,200.

The new proposed intensive behaviour support service is estimated to cost on average $29,000. Because the overall level of funding will remain the same that means that between 500 to 600 students could receive the new service. It will not exclude disability from half the places available so hopefully this will mean more children with disabilities will receive services.

The changes sound positive so why are they so controversial? Both our Families Choice research and our everyday interactions with parents demonstrate that not all schools are welcoming to children with disabilities. This is particularly a problem in rural areas where often there is not a choice of schools. Some parents feel that there is not enough support to care for their child at home. For these families, sending their child to a residential special school can seem like a reasonable option.

Parent’s’ actual experiences with residential special schools tended to be mixed. Some parents say the intensive support available in these schools really helps their children; others said they noticed no real difference and that the transition back to a local school was difficult. One parent, whose child was at a local school before going to a residential special school, was unable to transition her child back to a local school when he got back. No school would take her child.

Ultimately, this transition point is always going to be a major issue with the residential special schools model and with segregated education in general. The focus of segregated models is more on fixing the person, and less on dealing with the issues they face in the community. Even one of the positive stories on Salisbury School’s website highlights these issues. Casey’s difficulties at her local school come from the way other students treat her. Her sister also identifies discrimination and elitism as being the barriers she faces.

Removing Casey from her local school and placing her in a residential special school may provide temporary relief, but it does nothing to resolve the barriers she faces in the community. It may even reinforce the negative behaviour of the bullies. If our response to bullying is to remove the victim, we are inadvertently empowering the bullies and justifying their treatment of someone as different. All children need to be part of their community.

Many of the children who attend residential special schools do not qualify for the Ongoing Resources Scheme. Because they do not qualify, they receive little support in their local school. Residential special school offers these students the opportunity to receive the support they need. When you talk to parents who have sent their children to residential special school, most would have preferred to have kept them at home and sent them to their local school, but the support was not there.

This is why, while I support the intention of the Ministry of Education’s proposal; I completely understand parents’ concerns. To date, the Ministry of Education has not really offered these students and their parents’ adequate support, which is why, some families are skeptical about the changes.

The Ministry of Education needs to work hard to regain the trust of these families. The stakes are high, these students and their families deserve the support they need to succeed in their local school and community. I hope that the new service will finally enable families to get support where they need it the most; in their local school and in the own home.