Education Minister Hekia Parata accused of 'vendetta' over Salisbury School
The Public Service Association has called on Education Minister Hekia Parata to "step up, front up and stop dodging questions" over the future of Salisbury School.
Salisbury is a residential school in Richmond, near Nelson, that caters for girls from years 3 to 11 who have complex intellectual impairment.
"The decision around the future of Salisbury School has been overdue for months, and the ambiguity is leaving parents, staff and students in limbo," said PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk.
Parata announced last June that she had initiated consultation with the school's board over its possible closure, which was originally tipped for January 27. However, she has delayed the interim decision more than once and the school community remains on tenterhooks.
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It's the second time the minister has raised the spectre of the school's demise. She sought to close Salisbury in 2012 but the board won a reprieve by taking a case to the High Court.
In 2012, the Ministry of Education introduced the Intensive Wraparound Service (IWS). Students must now be accepted into the IWS before they are eligible to enrol at Salisbury. Since the IWS started, new enrolments dropped from 17 in 2012 to two in 2016 and one so far this year.
Parata has said that the successful implementation of the IWS has reduced the demand for residential schooling. However, the school says that the IWS has led to the "managing down" of enrolments.
It has argued that young people with autism and complex intellectual disabilities have fallen through the special education gap under the IWS, and has developed a proposal called the Salisbury Solution, with the aim of becoming a specialist facility for young people with those challenges.
Polaczuk said while the IWS was a good model for targeting some at-risk kids, "it has been unfairly deployed in limiting parents' access to schools like Salisbury".
"The Minister is happy to parade around talking up the benefits of charter schools but she has been utterly disengaged and dismissive of Salisbury's very persuasive argument for an enhanced focus on autistic and intellectually disabled students."
New Zealand First education spokeswoman Tracey Martin said she believed it was a deliberate act by the minister to close Salisbury.
"How dare they take her to court and prove her wrong."
Martin said the IWS had been set up for mainstream children with special needs and had a "philosophy to not offer a residential choice".
She also said the choice of a single-sex residential education for girls with intellectual disabilities would be removed if Salisbury closed, just as it had been for boys when Halswell Residential College in Christchurch became co-educational.
"Imagine the stink if they did that at … one of those highfalutin [mainstream] boys' schools," she said. "Just because you have a disability, how come you don't deserve the choice to go to a single-sex school? What about the choice for those families?"
It would be easy for the next education minister to turn back the situation by allowing "under very strict criteria" families to apply for enrolment directly to Salisbury.
Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the school "certainly wouldn't be closing" under a Labour government, which would make it easier for parents to enrol their children.
"We absolutely see a place in the system for schools like Salisbury," he said.
It was almost as if there was a "vendetta" against Salisbury with moves to "choke off the ability of parents to enrol their kids so they can close the school".
Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said Salisbury was needed because families could not always get the support for their daughters they needed at their local schools.
The Greens believed in inclusion and would love to see no need for special schools, but the reality did not match the theory.
IWS was only as good as the communities in which the families were living and some local schools did not have the skills, resources and attitude to cater for these students.
"It's a broken system," she said. "IWS on its own will not fix it."