Lack of notice on co-ed plan defended

ADAM ROBERTS
Last updated 05:00 05/12/2012

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Plans to house girls and boys with complex needs in a co-educational residential school were first drafted in early 2011, but were not mentioned in public until after a consultation period.

Education Minister Hekia Parata announced last month that Salisbury School, a residential school for girls with complex needs, would close at the end of the year and some of the students would have the option of attending Halswell Residential College in Christchurch, which would change from a boys' school to a co-educational one.

Salisbury School is now waiting on the outcome of a High Court hearing into the closure, with a decision expected before Christmas.

Salisbury School has raised concerns about the safety of the girls at the school, drawing on a study by Professor Freda Briggs into both schools in the mid-1990s and 2005 that suggested nearly all the boys at Halswell Residential College had experienced some form of sexual abuse at school.

The school also said it had not had an opportunity to address the issue of co-educational schools until after the consultation period.

A report from May 2011, prepared for then-minister of education Anne Tolley and part of the documents submitted as part of the current hearing, set out a plan to reform the special education sector that included developing Halswell into a national school for students with complex intellectual impairment.

The report recommended the minister close Salisbury School to add its resources to Halswell, and change the status of Halswell from a single-sex to a co-educational school.

But the consultation document sent out when the Ministry of Education announced the revamp of the sector in May this year made no mention of the possibility of creating any co-educational facilities, only saying the ministry was moving to a wrap-around model for special education, and that one or more schools might close.

Co-educational special schools were not mentioned until after the consultation period ended.

Only the affected schools, when they were given 28 days to respond to the initial decision, were given the opportunity to submit on this possibility.

Another ministry report following the 28-day feedback period said "a proposal" made during the consultation suggested there should be two co-educational schools.

The document later mentioned that Halswell Residential College's submission advocated for a co-educational school for learners with an intellectual impairment. This, the document said, meant co-education had "support from people working in this field".

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Neither Salisbury School nor the ministry would comment as the issues were still before the court.

Halswell Residential College board of trustees chairman Simon Buckland said his school was beginning the process of becoming co-educational, and he did not share the concerns held by Salisbury School and others.

"I'm very, very confident that those issues are not issues at all.

"If there was lots and lots of data out there saying it was a bad thing to do you would think it would be a lot more obvious than it is."

He did not accept Prof Briggs' report as presented to the High Court, saying it unfairly characterised the school's systems as failing, and its students as opportunistic predators. The data was unclear and vague. "I would want to assure all the parents who read the article [today] that the No 1 priority for our board is the safety of the students. That safety extends everywhere."

He said it was a shame that the question of co-educational schools had not come up in the consultation process, as it meant it was hard to tell how much support co-ed schools had in the sector.

But he did not think this was a good enough reason to hold another review.

"To me what is important now is there needs to be a level of certainty.

"A decision needs to be made quickly. The fact that co-educational schools weren't mentioned is not a fundamental barrier. Other people may think it is."

A review of the special education sector in 2010 had signalled that the Government was looking at new ways of managing the sector.

As a result of the review, Halswell had taken a look at its strategic plan, and co-educational schools had been a part of this. "It's not like this came out of the blue."

But to the best of his knowledge, there had been no discussion between the ministry and the school over the move until the decision had been made by the minister, he said.

- The Nelson Mail

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