Don't put our disadvantaged at risk

MARY ELLEN O'CONNOR
Last updated 15:07 22/11/2012

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When Nick Smith, Maryan Street and Richard Kempthorne agree on something, that should give a minister pause for thought.

The debate about the closure of Salisbury School has been remarkable for the consensus across political lines from the opposers and the ongoing refusal to front or debate from the proposers, chiefly the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata.

It is a classic community versus the authorities argument in which the parents, teachers, students, the board and many others continue to put the case for the school to be kept open while the official line, based on nothing but cliches and bottom lines, gets parroted (should that be Paratad?) again and again.

And while being-mainstreamed-at-the- local-school talk also sounds good, this ground has already been traversed.

During the 1980s, it was discovered that sexual abuse was a factor in the lives of as many as 70 per cent of the girls at Salisbury. A child protection team was set up and training was implemented to try to keep the girls safer. In 1986, the idea that Salisbury should become a co-educational facility was mooted, but the school charter of 1990 established it firmly as a girls' school.

It was felt that the large number of either vulnerable or abused girls should not be placed in jeopardy by having boys present at the school - the very arguments which are having to be presented again today.

While the "domiciled at home as part of their community" talk also sounds very good, Salisbury has heard all this before too. The Lough report, which followed the Education Amendment Act 1989, recommended the closure of all special residential institutions.

Mainstreaming was the new zeitgeist. This argued for the right for those with a disability to be educated alongside one's peers and was part of an international movement recognising the human rights of those with disabilities. Supporters of the approach believed that learners of differing abilities benefited more from learning and playing alongside "age mates" than from being in segregated settings.

Principals, parents and teachers were often less favourably disposed towards mainstreaming, suspecting that it was favoured by the Government because it was cheaper than expensive units or residences.

But the Education Amendment Act had also established self-governing boards of trustees for each school and the newly constituted Salisbury Board was not going to simply accept the school's closure.

With the election a year away, a massive letter-writing and lobbying campaign began. In what could now be seen as a great political irony, it was Lockwood Smith, Speaker of the House, then shadow minister for education, who promised that if National was elected in 1990, he would keep the school open. National was elected and he kept his word. The timing was very good. Campbell Park, a special school for boys in the Waitaki Valley, had already been closed.

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But despite Dr Smith's stance, bureaucrats within the Ministry of Education and Treasury were wedded to the mainstreaming philosophy.

As it was instituted, many special education units, in secondary schools and assessment classes (those with a special education function) in primary schools, were closed, along with several residential facilities.

However, the savings from the closures were not seen to be redirected into mainstreaming. Moreover, the increasingly narrow targeting of funding under the Ongoing Renewable Resourcing Scheme (ORRS), a true oxymoron, means that learning disabled students often can't access this and regular schools are not always welcoming of those with a disability.

The principals, parents and teachers who had been suspicious of the Lough recommendations were proved right. Those opposing the closure of Salisbury now are all too well acquainted with these scenarios.

A few years ago, an independently conducted consultation, Let's Talk, took place with all Salisbury stakeholders about their level of satisfaction with the service provided by the school. Parents' responses indicated that they were most appreciative of the changes in their daughters' overall behaviour, self-esteem, and social and life skills after attending Salisbury.

Their priorities were for residential schools to stay open and to have the option of students staying longer than two years at Salisbury. (It is interesting to note the number of parents who apply for an extension of their daughter's time.)

One section of the consultation involved assessing leavers' perceptions of changes that had occurred for them while at Salisbury.

All students were overwhelmingly positive about what had been their home for two years and, with one exception, were genuinely sad to be leaving.

There are mixed messages coming from this National administration. It is very keen to deal with "the long tail of underachievement" and has enacted legislation to establish special charter schools where communities feel they are being short- changed. Salisbury School is a dedicated national resource established to deal with exactly that "long tail".

Many Salisbury students would be described as "high and complex needs" and are often under Child, Youth and Family.

Certainly, many students exhibit a range of problems relating to the environment they have come from. At very least, Salisbury provides a break from such environments and offers students the opportunity to learn to deal with these.

The Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett, "is passionate about effecting positive change in people's lives, their family and their community". To judge from the consultation process, it seems that Salisbury is doing that.

Moreover, "choice" is a great mantra of this administration. Surely Salisbury provides that for parents and students. Why close a facility that offers specific academic assistance to the "long tail", strategic support for "effecting positive change in people's lives" and choice to parents and students?

Life is never kind to the disadvantaged. Let's not put them more at risk. It is every government's obligation to provide options and funding for the learning disabled in the interests of successful outcomes for them. As the maxim goes, a nation can be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable. Special education deserves the best in terms of an official commitment to funding and choices. High and complex needs will never be served by one size fits all.

  • Mary Ellen O'Connor is a writer, living in Nelson and is a member of member of the Quality Public Education Coalition. She wrote Salisbury School - A Lesson in Special Education, published by Pindar Auckland in 2008.

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