Communities not ready for McKenzie's pupils

Last updated 08:16 24/10/2012
Greg Healy
DEAN KOZANIC/Fairfax NZ

CONCERNED: Greg Healy, the principal of McKenzie Residential School, which caters for boys with behavioural issues.

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Consultation continues on the Government's proposal to close the McKenzie Residential School in Christchurch. Lois Chick argues for its retention.

There's an old saying that the effectiveness of a community is best judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable.

Hidden behind a tree-lined drive in Yaldhurst Rd is McKenzie Residential School. Readers may recall the sign and may have wondered what this school is all about. It is not a school that alerts the community to its outstanding features with a billboard at its entrance. It is not a school that features its wellbeing via a yearly Press promotion seeking more students.

Since 1971 teachers, residential social workers, cooks and other significant service staff with a strong board of trustees have quietly toiled without self-promotion to achieve what can only be described as phenomenally outstanding results.

This is a place where boys, and occasionally girls, from years 3 to 8 have come from throughout the South Island and the lower half of the North Island for up to a year's stay. They arrive after months - and more frequently years - of emotional turmoil, have some extremely inappropriate behaviour traits and in the majority of cases are achieving well below their age peers academically, with significant gaps in their learning.

They are accompanied at entry by their parents, who are stressed after having spent considerable time seeking help, often from the health and school systems. These students have frequently exhausted the professional skill set of their home communities and as a last resort it has been recommended to the family and mainstream school that this residential placement would be in their child's best interests.

And how right they have been.

Multitudes of young people have stated over many years:

"This is the place that changed my life."

"This school was where I learnt to be normal again."

"This is where I learnt to read and know stuff for the first time."

Students have often been described as the most discerning consumers of education and the detailed reports of past pupils tell it all as it is: the reality.

The positive stories are extensive and the board of trustees has systematically ensured that ongoing research has been done to monitor this progress, as well as future outcomes once this student has returned to the mainstream.

The school has clear data on numerous examples of improved behaviour, improved levels of engagement and considerable advancement in academic achievement, often to the same level of the students' peers.

It is important to note that this speed of progress is rarely seen at a similar level within a mainstreamed setting.

The skilful professionals at McKenzie Residential School have achieved what no other person has managed to achieve prior to this enrolment.

The Education Minister has flagged that this school will close at the end of this year. The reason given is that a new model for education will take its place.

The official terminology is that a "wraparound system" will now cater for a student of this kind within his or her home community.

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This means that the same people who have worked with such students before the McKenzie enrolment are now to develop an intensive wraparound support system that will enable the learners to remain in their communities and attend their local schools.

For this to be successful, much training across many areas of the sector will be necessary.

For mainstreamed schools, teachers will require extensive support and training. To date, the Education Ministry has implemented some support for teachers with such programmes as "Positive Behaviour for Learning".

However, this programme is geared to help schools change or embed an inclusive culture. In effect this means providing a more accepting environment for students who appear different.

This is simply insufficient preparation for dealing with the kind of extreme behaviour that the students with such complex needs present. Teachers of mainstreamed schools do not have the expertise to manage such behaviours, let alone the ability to help sustain any changes over a long period.

This also presupposes that all communities will become experts in managing such complex behaviours.

While it would be unfair to suggest small towns and small isolated communities would not learn to cope, the level of expertise required is extensive and hardly likely to be available right across every area of New Zealand.

While the notion of full mainstreaming is an honourable goal for all children and fits the values and beliefs of most thinking and caring people, the community first needs to be ready and able to cope.

The current ministry, wisely, has been unequivocal that all its policies and future directions are evidence-based and data-driven, but the research evidence that a wraparound service is successful is not that promising.

Overseas research is extensive and completed over a lengthy period but not with strong results. The New Zealand research that has been completed in a very short timeframe is mixed.

The outlook for these young people is therefore fraught with unpredictability.

Why then is the ministry hell-bent on experimenting with our vulnerable children?

By all means, continue to work hard at developing the goal to the point that success is guaranteed for such children in their home communities, but first make sure the system is ready for them.

It certainly is not for January 2013 when the first 30 young people will return to their home communities.

Lois Chick is a director of New Zealand Graduate School of Education, the private teachers' college in Christchurch, and has had a lifetime interest in working with special-needs students.

- The Press

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