Patrice Dougan is the Herald's education reporter.

Ministry constraints led to Nelson school's potential closure, says chairman

Salisbury School's roll is falling. Photo / iStock
Salisbury School's roll is falling. Photo / iStock

A special needs school, earmarked for closure by the Government, has vowed to "fight vigorously" to stay open.

Salisbury School in Nelson, a residential school for Year 3 to Year 10 girls with complex needs, entered a consultation process on its future yesterday, after Education Minister Hekia Parata said its declining roll raised questions over its economic viability.

The announcement has been met with condemnation from parents, unions and political parties, as well as the school, which has blamed the Ministry for placing "artificial constraints" on its enrolment process to deliberately ensure a small roll - an accusation Ms Parata has denied.

John Kane, chairman of the school's board of trustees, vowed the school would "fight [a closure] vigorously".

"We will be making a very detailed response as part of the consultation process."

The school would again push its previous proposal to expand the range of services it offered to also cater for high needs autistic children, which was last year rejected by the Ministry.

Mr Kane criticised the "ridiculous dis-economies of scale [which] have been forced on the school by the Ministry".

Yesterday, the Minister said educating girls at Salisbury school had soared to $214,909 a child, compared to the $27,000 average cost of providing intensive, localised support through Intensive Wraparound Service (IWS).

Hekia Parata said she understood the school's disappointment, but it was "not true that I have been trying to close the school since 2012". Photo / Doug Sherring
Hekia Parata said she understood the school's disappointment, but it was "not true that I have been trying to close the school since 2012". Photo / Doug Sherring

Ms Parata said the school's declining roll, which fell from 72 to nine since 2011, and the success of the IWS scheme put the financial viability of the school in question.

"The figure the Minister has quoted is entirely a product of the constraints that the Ministry has placed on the roll, and as the roll's got smaller the costs becomes proportionally higher, so you end up with a vastly exaggerated and ridiculous per pupil cost.

"We would be the first people to say this is an outrageous amount of money to be spending. It's totally unnecessary and entirely a result of the Ministry's sinking lid policy on our enrolments."

Some parents worked "astronomically hard" over several years to get their child into Salisbury, he said.

"It's very clear they've gone through hell to get their kid in and they wouldn't do that unless there was a worthwhile goal at the end."

He was greatly disappointed by the Minister's announcement, he said and believed the Ministry had been working towards the closure of the school ever since it lost a High Court challenge to close Salisbury four years ago.

"They failed in 2012 to close the place and they've been getting all their ducks lined up in the meantime," he said.

In a statement to the Herald, Ms Parata said she understood the school's disappointment, but it was "not true that I have been trying to close the school since 2012".

"Nor is it true to suggest that I have set out to ensure it dies a 'slow death'," she said.

"Salisbury's roll has fallen because the introduction of the Intensive Wraparound Service has provided parents of girls with high and complex needs with an alternative to residential schooling that is proving popular.

"All parents of children prioritised for intensive, personalised care still have the option of residential schooling, but an increasing number are opting for localised support that enables them to keep their children at home."

The Minister denied there was an artificial constraint on enrolments, saying decisions on applications to the school were made "on the basis of student needs, not political considerations".

"As a minister who takes her responsibilities seriously, I have no choice but to consider whether continuing to fund Salisbury School for a very small number of students is the most effective use of resources for students with high and complex needs."

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said the Minister was "wrong that IWS is meeting all the needs, because it's absolutely not".

An education select committee inquiry into how schools support children with learning disabilities last year found "the system was broken", she said.

"Those who are eligible for ORS [On-going Resourcing Scheme] and IWS, who manage to get through the unbelievable hoops to get this extra support, the extra support is not always working," she said.

This was because many teachers and teacher aides were not trained in how to support children with special needs, she said.

Salisbury School had "had the ground cut out from underneath them", she said, saying the consultation announcement was "a signal that the school will close".

"That's pretty tough for the families who testified to me about the enormous benefit they had from the school," she said.

"I'm an enormous believer is inclusion, I believe that local state schools should be able to support all children. But they don't at the moment. They cannot cope with some of the complex conditions that children experience."

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the announcement was "pretty outrageous", but not surprising as it was "not the first time [the Minister] has tried to close Salisbury School".

"She has wanted to close it since 2012," he said, saying Ms Parata had "done all in her power to ensure Salisbury dies a slow death".

"National campaigned in 2008 on a platform of increasing the number of special schools, yet Hekia Parata has done more than any other Minister of Education to close them down," he said.

"I visited Salisbury and saw the amazing work that they do. They've been treated appallingly by an increasingly arrogant and out-of-touch Government. These kids deserve better."

Salisbury School won a High Court action to stop a 2012 Ministry decision to close the residential facility. Ms Parata had proposed closing Salisbury and moving the girls to all-boys Halswell College, turning it into a co-educational facility. The school opposed the decision, saying it failed to take into account the girls' safety, and would leave them open to abuse.

The Public Service Association (PSA) also criticised the "cruel decision", saying the school's closure was a "foregone conclusion".

"The PSA represents around 20 employees at the school and all will lose their jobs," PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk said, saying staff at the school had been told "a decision has already been made".

"This news is a disaster for the pupils of Salisbury School, their families and the community it serves," she said.

"Ms Parata says the school is now very expensive to run, but its falling roll is a direct consequence of decisions her Government has made.

"These girls need support and security, not the continued threats of disruption that this Government has made."

Ms Polaczuk added: "Nelson MP Nick Smith has said the school cannot justify its use of a prime eight-hectare site in the city. That's a clear sign the government has other priorities - and it's already made up its mind."

New Zealand First education spokeswoman Tracey Martin said the proposed closure was a money saving exercise, and not in the best interests of the pupils.

"We have testimonial after testimonial that Salisbury has been an outstanding school for both the academic and social outcomes of their past students," she said.

"What this is truly about is saving money. And I believe it's also another example of another Minister of this Government punishing citizens - the elected board of Salisbury - for daring to disagree with their ideology and for taking them to court in 2012.

"I am working with my staff to see how we might stop this from happening and to show this Government that these bullyboy tactics - the deliberate starving of students to force a school shut down - will not be taken lightly by the public of New Zealand."

- NZ Herald

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