Plans to change special schools enrolment criteria halted

Source: 1News

Plans to change the enrolment criteria at schools for the country's most high needs students have been put on hold.

Last year Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti kicked off a process to widen access to residential special schools following years of low student numbers.

But in September the United Nations recommended New Zealand get rid of the schools all together.

Westbridge Residential School principal David Bagwell said the decision came as a huge shock.

"We went to attend a meeting and we believed the meeting was the next steps in the process," he said.

"We got a bit of a bombshell when they said, 'Actually, we're going to pause this work'."

There's three residential special schools across the country - Westbridge in Auckland, Salisbury School in Richmond, and Halswell Residential College in Christchurch.

Students there have complex needs that can relate to learning, behaviour, socialisation, vision and hearing.

Between the schools there's currently 29 students, well below the 84 they're funded for. But the schools say that isn't their fault.

"There's not a demand issue. If you talk to mainstream principals, we know there is a huge demand for the sorts of service we offer so it's very much an access issue," Bagwell said.

The schools themselves don't get to decide who can and can't attend. Enrolment goes through the Ministry of Education and the criteria is strict.

Earlier this year, the ministry consulted with the sector and was looking at making changes when a UN Disability Rights Committee report was released in September.

The report stated: "The committee recommended that New Zealand develop a comprehensive deinstitutionalisation strategy."

It went on to recommend the Government "close all residential institutions, including group homes and residential specialist schools".

While Tinetti has paused the work on enrolment, she isn't throwing her weight behind the UN report either.

"Personally I disagree with that point. I feel that they can be part of an inclusive system, but I'm willing to see what the evidence suggests."

She says she's waiting on a report from Auckland University on the schools before making any final decisions.

There's been fierce debate over the schools for years, with some advocating that the students should be looked after within mainstream schools.

Jonathan Godfrey from the Disabled People's Organisation Coalition says the schools are outdated.

"Disabled people and our families need to hear that the Minister and Associate Minister for Education are going to support disabled kids and their families to live in their communities and go to their local schools," Godfrey said.

"If that means closing down residential schools because we need to shift the resource to support people at home, close them down."

But those who run the schools say that would be a disaster for the students.

"No one would argue against a system where every student gets their needs met – it’s not the reality," Bagwell said.

"There would have to be some huge changes for that to happen. Closing our schools does not solve that problem."