Primary school teachers say the Government's plan to close two of New Zealand's four residential special schools will force children with severe intellectual disabilities and behavioural issues back into mainstream education and put pressure on schools, families and communities.
Education Minister Hekia Parata yesterday announced Halswell Residential College in Christchurch and Auckland's Westbridge Residential School would remain open, but it is proposing to close Salisbury Residential School in Nelson and McKenzie Residential School in Christchurch.
It is part of a new mixed model for special education which will expand tailored individual services for students with complex needs within their own communities.
The schools have 28 days to respond to the plan.
The primary teachers' union, the Educational Institute, says there is inadequate long-term funding to push high-needs students back into mainstream schools because additional funding would only be available to schools for up to two years.
National president Ian Leckie said after that, schools would be expected to fund specialised support from their own budgets.
However Parata told reporters the Educational Institute was wrong as extra money to support mainstream schools who took on high-needs students would be provided indefinitely.
The four residential special schools were staffed with highly trained and qualified special education teachers.
"Schools will struggle to provide that level of care, especially once targeting funding is removed. This will inevitably place further pressure on teachers and families of these children," Leckie said.
Labour's special education spokesperson, Chris Hipkins, said the plan was another "class sizes-style decision" based on costs, not children.
In June Parata was forced into an embarrassing backdown over plans to increase class sizes after outrage from teachers and parents.
Hipkins said the Education Ministry's discussion document made it very clear the changes were about saving money.
"It costs about $84,200 per year to educate a student at a residential school, whereas the new 'wrap-around' model the minister speaks of costs $29,000 a year. These kids are getting short-changed."
Parata had made decision about the schools without visiting them, he said.
"I have visited all four schools and I'm very open about the fact that my perspective has changed completely as a result."
The schools provided desperately-needed respite for the childrens' families, Hipkins said.
Parata today said the two schools remaining open would be able to cater for the same amount of students the four schools did now. Most students who needed such services were in the North Island.
Any money saved would go back into the coffers for additional services.
"We have also found that the evidence supports the fact that there are better, more sustainable outcomes for students where that service can be provided to them in their home community," she told Radio New Zealand.
"Residential schools provide part of that service but inevitably, our students need to go and be re-integrated back into their home communities and what this proposal does is provide an 'and and' solution, not an 'either, or'."
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