The Government is looking at how to reverse the shrinking rolls of schools providing education and housing for highest-need students – but some argue the funding would have more impact if spread throughout Aotearoa

Plans to loosen the entry criteria for three special education schools could undermine efforts to better support disabled children throughout the country’s education system, disability and education groups say.

The Ministry of Education last week started a two-week consultation process on changes to the direct access pathway for the country’s residential specialist schools: Westbridge Residential School in Auckland, Halswell Residential College in Christchurch and Salisbury School in Nelson.

The schools, which house and educate children with complex social, behavioural and learning needs, received about $13 million in funding in 2020, but concern has grown in recent years about their steadily shrinking rolls.

Halswell and Westbridge currently have a combined roll of 23 students but receive funding for a ‘notional’ roll of 64, while Salisbury School has been reported by Stuff as having just four students but funding for 20.

The Government in 2018 announced a new direct-access pathway for students to attend the schools, in addition to an existing referral process, and documents seen by Newsroom show it is now considering proposals to further loosen access requirements.

The proposed changes would remove requirements for prospective students to have “highly complex and challenging” needs, to not need community intervention or intensive services, and for their family to have considered or tried local learning support services.

Instead, those would become “explicit considerations” in a benefit-risk assessment for any student wanting to enrol.

“Removing three of the four current criteria will provide for greater flexibility and a more holistic assessment of need in informing RSS direct access enrolments,” the ministry’s consultation documents say.

The proposals include scrapping application deadlines for the school and providing more information to children and their families, as well as giving greater consideration to how students will transition out of the schools.

“It’s not a question of empire building and creating facilities for 100 kids at each place – that’s stupid, absolutely ridiculous.”
– Dave Turnbull, Halswell/Westbridge schools

Dave Turnbull, the chair of the combined board of trustees for the Halswell and Westbridge schools, told Newsroom the schools had previously expressed their concern about the admission criteria having acted as a barrier to entry to those who could benefit.

“It seemed to be, ‘Let’s see if we can find reasons not to enrol this child’ rather than, ‘What would be in the best interests of this child, and would those best interests … be more satisfied in a residential school?’”

Turnbull said the schools did not want “enrolments for enrolments’ sake”, as the overwhelming majority of children would benefit most from places in a local school.

However, there were a small number who would benefit from placement in a residential specialist school, which justified the associated expenses.

“It’s not a question of empire building and creating facilities for 100 kids at each place – that’s stupid, absolutely ridiculous. I don’t have a particular argument with inclusive education, but I will always maintain that … there are outlier kids who need something a wee bit different.”

Inclusive Education Action Group convener Heather Lear told Newsroom the organisation was concerned about the brevity of the consultation process, which would finish before a separate review into support for children with the highest learning needs.

The group, which advocates for schools to better include children with disabilities, believed the significant funding which went to residential schools would be better spent providing support throughout local schools rather than trying to grow their small rolls.

Loosening the criteria for admission could lead to more families sending their children away to receive respite rather than receiving the resources they deserved closer to home, Lear said.

“This is preying on vulnerable families who are at their wit’s end, not getting support in their local school – of course it looks like a great option, it’s just so inequitable.”

‘Limited evidence’ on schools’ value

IHC advocacy director Trish Grant had similar concerns about the lack of investment in local schools and communities, saying a focus on growing the residential schools clashed with government policies related to inclusive education.

“It seems very odd when we’ve got a Royal Commission of Abuse… hearing stories about the levels of abuse that occur in segregated isolated settings, that we’re saying that this is okay for disabled students – we don’t think it is.”

Grant said there needed to be a broader and longer consultation, which could fold in the findings of the Royal Commission as well as the highest needs review.

University of Auckland senior education lecturer Dr Jude MacArthur told Newsroom there was limited evidence on whether residential schools actually offered quality education and improved life outcomes for the children who attended them.

McArthur said the disproportionate representation of Māori in residential schools had also been raised in the past, but did not appear to form part of the current consultation process.

Moving a child away from their family and community to a residential school suggested “the problem is actually located in the child themselves”, which was a model that did not make sense.

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti told Newsroom she had asked the ministry to identify opportunities to improve access for learners who might benefit from a period of enrolment at a residential specialist school, and expected to receive the advice by the end of April.

Ministry of Education operations and integration hautū (leader) Sean Teddy said officials had met with the Disability Rights Commissioner and the Children’s Commissioner as part of a “targeted engagement” process which included the disability and learning support sector, education groups and parents.

Teddy said no consideration had been given to closing the schools, which were “one of the suite of options available for children and young people who have learning support needs”.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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