Parata under fire over residential schools

JOELLE DALLY, CHARLEY MANN AND FAIRFAX NZ
Last updated 08:44 01/11/2012
Hekia Parata
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
BACKDOWN: Hekia Parata.

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Education Minister Hekia Parata is under fire again, this time for her decision to close two special schools.

Parata yesterday announced McKenzie Residential School in Christchurch and Nelson's Salisbury Residential School will close on January 27, next year.

The closed schools will be replaced by a "wraparound" service, where pupils would return to local mainstream schools or transfer to one of two remaining special schools in New Zealand.

The special schools remaining open are Halswell Residential School in Christchurch and Westbridge Residential School in Auckland.

Parata's decision has been criticised by opposition parties which say she is not listening to local communities and is getting poor advice.

Labour's associate education spokesman Chris Hipkins said it was another example of Parata announcing her intentions, going through the motion of consultation, and then going ahead with her original plan regardless of what she was told.

''She is just wrong in this decision.''

Parata was putting costs ahead of the country's most vulnerable children who needed intensive support that regular schools struggled to provide, he said.

Education Ministry advice showed residential schools costs $84,200 a year but the new wrap-around model would cost  $29,000, he said.

Parata is fighting fires on a number of fronts after several deeply unpopular decisions this year, including the reform of Christchurch schools.

Earlier this month she angered teachers at a Post Primary Teachers Association conference by suggesting they pronounced Maori and Pasifika names incorrectly.

In May she was forced into an embarrassing backdown over Government plans to extend class sizes after outrage from parents and teachers.

There have also been ongoing problems with a new payroll system for teachers.

Greens education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty last night attended a protest in Christchurch against the reforms in the quake-torn city, followed by a public meeting attended by hundreds of people.

''People were chanting very negative things about Hekia. She is going from school to school but she is not winning hearts nor minds.''

The Public Service Association described Parata's decision as a ''kick in the guts'' for staff, students and families at the residential schools which would leave 90 people out of work.

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National secretary Brenda Pilott said the new wraparound service was untested.

"Schools like Salisbury and McKenzie have been positive last stops for them and their families. That option is now being removed.''

Principal 'dismayed'

The announcement has shocked both schools, which fought hard to stay open after the closures were first provisionally announced in August.

McKenzie Residential School principal Greg Healy said he was dismayed.

"The arguments we presented were quite powerful.

"Obviously it has been at odds with what the minister wanted to do," he said.

Healy said most of his pupils, who had severe behavioural problems, would be integrated into mainstream classrooms in Christchurch.

Not only would those pupils "miss out" but "the disruption they can create certainly has a huge impact on other students, teachers and indeed the whole school", Healy said.

Salisbury board of trustees chair Helen McDonnell told Radio New Zealand this morning the school was likely to take legal action to attempt to stay open.

McDonnell said the board was "profoundly disappointed" with the ministry's decision, calling it a "mishandled process".

McDonnell said parents were anxious about reintegrating their daughters at Halswell Residential School.

Placing special needs boys and girls together in a residential environment could put young girls at unnecessary risk of harm, she said.

"A co-educational residential environment is inappropriate, unreasonable and potentially dangerous," she said.

The schools were given 28 days to respond after August's announcement.

Parata said the final decision was made after "carefully considering all the information".

This included 365 submissions from the McKenzie school community, most of which opposed a closure.

Funding from closing the schools would be redirected into the wraparound service, Parata said.

The priority now was to develop an "individualised transition plan" for students enrolled in a closing school, she said.

Halswell Residential School in Christchurch and Westbridge Residential School in Auckland will cater for 100 students combined - 15 fewer than all four schools did in April.

Principals of other schools 'sobered' by closures

Principals involved in proposals to close 13 schools and put 26 through some form of merger say they are "sobered" by the decision.

Yaldhurst Model School acting principal Ann-Marie Garden said staff put forward a submission to keep McKenzie open.

She said it was ''sobering'' to hear the outcome after seeing how hard the school fought to stay open, ''particularly at a time when schools in Christchurch have entered into consultation".

"You think 'gosh, they worked really hard yet they have that outcome','' she said.

"McKenzie were doing such a fantastic job, those kids were turning around.''

The two schools had a close relationship, with McKenzie pupils making up part of the Yaldhurst rugby team.

Branston Intermediate School principal Jennifer O'Leary said she said she was ''devastated'' to learn the news.

Branston accepts pupils from McKenzie and also refers pupils to the school.

Closing the school removed another choice for parents, she said.

- The Press

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