Special school says final farewell

Last updated 09:36 16/12/2012
Greg Healy
CONCERNED: Greg Healy, the principal of McKenzie Residential School, which caters for boys with behavioural issues.

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McKenzie Residential School principal Greg Healy was not just sombre saying goodbye to his 26 pupils. He was concerned.

In August, Education Minister Hekia Parata said the Christchurch school, which catered for children with special education needs, was to be shut.

Instead, pupils will be served by an intensive wrap-around service and be placed in mainstream classrooms.

Despite leaving McKenzie on Friday, five pupils do not have wrap-around plans in place, and some do not have a school to go to.

Some mainstream schools where pupils will start next month will not have any resources in place before the academic year begins.

"And resources, in some cases, are less than was initially discussed," Healy said.

After 30 years at McKenzie, 25 as principal, Healy has concerns about the "indecent haste" in closing the Yaldhurst school and he fears the mainstream is not ready for the extreme behaviours that the school catered for.

He had always maintained the wrap-around service could work for some pupils. However, he said "there is a small number of pupils whose behaviour is too extreme".

McKenzie, Salisbury School in Nelson, Halswell Residential College in Christchurch and Auckland's Westbridge Residential School were all put on the chopping block in May.

McKenzie has fallen. Salisbury was told to close but took its fight to stay open to the High Court, where Justice Dobson ruled this week that Parata's order was unlawful. The decision will not be challenged.

Lois Chick, a director of the New Zealand Graduate School of Education, shares concerns about McKenzie's closure.

"The idea of everybody being in the mainstream is a very good one, but the mainstream has got to be ready. It is far too early," she said.

The wrap-around model is based on evidence gathered from the 2009 closure of Waimakoia Residential Special School.

The ministry developed the Intensive Behaviour Service in 2010 to cope with the issue of placing former pupils in mainstream schools. It was extended when Halswell and McKenzie had to shut for many weeks after last February's earthquake.

McKenzie was commandeered by ministry staff while they got mainstream schools running, so pupils missed out on almost an entire term, Healy said.

Parata said in a confidential paper to the Cabinet Social Policy Committee in August, which has since been made public, that after more than two years running the service "we now know that we can get excellent results at much less cost per learner than we get when they are enrolled in a residential special school".

Each pupil at a residential school costs $80,000 annually, and the wrap-around service would cost about $29,000 a child.

Chick countered that the decision was based on "very mixed" data. "My beef is about feeling that we have not got very strong data collected over a reasonable period of time that is useful and necessary to guarantee that the students are going to get their needs met."

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Parata has also claimed there had been "longstanding concerns with residential schools because of poor governance and poor long- term outcomes".

Healy said this was "quite untrue". "We have had seven successive positive Education Review Office reports, each better than the previous."

"It is difficult to accept that we are the one being shut."

He said that after 30 years, where he had seen former pupils go on to become celebrity chefs and decorated academics, the closure would not sink in until the last staff member left on Tuesday.

Of the pupils, he said: "I have seen some come in hard as nails, anti-school, really difficult with poor behaviour.

"Yet by the time they leave, they have learnt to be kids again."

Healy will take on relief work as deputy principal at an as-yet- undisclosed school next term. And then? "I've got an open mind."

- Fairfax Media


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