Salisbury School 'devastated' by ruling

Not giving up: Salisbury School board chairwoman Helen McDonnell will argue for the school to remain open.
Not giving up: Salisbury School board chairwoman Helen McDonnell will argue for the school to remain open.

The Government's "devastating" decision to close Salisbury School in Richmond will see 62 specialist staff lose their jobs.

The 65 girls at the school will became part of the Government's new model of "wrap-around services".

The school's board of trustees chairwoman, Helen McDonnell, said the school was devastated by the plan, and planned to use a 28-day submission period to fight the move.

Education Minister Hekia Parata announced her initial decision yesterday, after a three-month consultation period, recommending that the girls' school be closed, in favour of a co-educational residential facility in Christchurch.

A new "wrap-around" tailored service would also be expanded. The service would provide individualised support for learners with complex needs in their own communities.

Halswell Residential College in Christchurch and Auckland's Westbridge Residential School would remain open, but it was proposed that Salisbury, and McKenzie Residential School in Christchurch would close.

A final decision will be announced in October.

Ms Parata said the proposal was about providing a continuum of education to girls with special needs.

"Learners are at different stages of that continuum at different stages of their lives. It's not an either-or approach."

She had been persuaded by the proposals advocating for residential schools, and had modified the plan from closing all the schools to keeping two open.

Any school facing closure now has 28 days to respond with reasons why it should remain open, and Ms Parata said she would take this process seriously.

"I genuinely want to wait and see what the submissions might be."

Salisbury School, open for nearly a century, employs more than 62 staff and cares for about 65 students, including an outreach service for 22 students.

The school is the only residential education and pastoral care centre for girls with complex needs in Australasia. Students are referred there from throughout the country, and are enrolled for up to two years.

Mrs McDonnell said she was bitterly disappointed by the decision.

"We're devastated, really."

She was also concerned for the welfare of students moved to a co-educational facility.

Girls with educational difficulties were vulnerable to abuse, and Salisbury offered the girls a safe environment that could not be guaranteed at another facility.

Although the minister had said the service would be developed to manage these risks, there was no evidence that anything was in place.

Parents may choose not to put their children into such a residential facility, she said.

"It could make the difference for families. That could be the turning point [for the family] to decide not to do it.

"I wouldn't be happy sending my daughter to a place with a potential risk."

She was happy to have "raised the flag" around the importance of the residential service."

"We have got another 28 days. We just need to make sure that we really let them know that what's happening is short-sighted at providing a service for these girls with complex needs."

She also thanked the community for supporting the school, but said the fight was not over yet.

Nelson-based Labour list MP Maryan Street said she felt angry about the decision, which she said was a blow to Nelson and its residents, particularly the staff of the school.

"I feel desperately sorry for them, they work really hard to provide a quality service for those girls."

She was sceptical that the money saved by closing the schools would go back into the special education budget to provide a wrap-around service.

"This is clearly a cost-cutting measure; I don't see why the most vulnerable in our education system should be the ones who have to stump up with cost-cutting."

The 28-day period for schools to make a final appeal was "an absolute nonsense", she said.

"What is the school going to say in the next 28 days that they haven't already said?"

Instead, Ms Parata should visit the school to see for herself.

"She refused to, and then she tried to turn that into a virtue by saying, ‘oh no, I shouldn't come while a decision is in the offing'. That's a reprehensible way to run the education portfolio."

Nelson MP Nick Smith said he was disappointed for Salisbury as it had provided nearly a century of good quality special needs education for a disadvantaged group.

But with 90 per cent of the students travelling from the North Island at great expense, Nelson's relative isolation was not in its favour.

He had advocated strongly to Ms Parata for the retention of Salisbury, but appreciated that she had to take a wider view.

"There's no question that its principal and its staff and its board are very committed. I want to thank them for their service; they can be proud."

The decision had to be made on the basis of what was the best way to meet the needs of the next generation of students with special needs, and he was pleased that the minister had not decided to close all the schools.

"I don't think there's any real question about the standard of education that's available at the residential school. The core question is what's the right type of education for these students and best location for that?"

The Nelson Mail