7 Aug 2016

Nelson school battles "penny-pinching" closure

6:15 pm on 7 August 2016

The Nelson community is fighting back against the potential closure of a school which caters for girls with learning difficulties.

National MP, Hekia Parata.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has revealed plans to close the school early next year. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Members of the community and local politicians gathered at Salisbury School today to discuss how they would fight moves to close it.

The school has 10 students with intellectual disabilities such as autism, foetal alcohol syndrome, and developmental and behavioural problems.

Last month, Education Minister Hekia Parata released a proposal to close the school early next year.

The government tried to close the school in 2012, but the school's board of trustees challenged the move, and the High Court ruled the decision to close the school was unlawful.

Board chair John Kane said the school was hosting a community event to raise awareness of its plight.

"We want to encourage people to write submissions to the minister on the proposed closure, and possibly even reach into their pockets to help with the legal costs.

"People read stuff in the paper and hear it on the radio but some people still don't have the full picture of what is happening and what effect the closure could have on these young women," Mr Kane said.

He said the minister wanted to close the school because at the moment it costs too much for each student to attend.

"Obviously with the speciality needs it is going to be expensive but we know we can get the cost down, it can be economically reasonable. The reason it is so expensive is because the number of students has been cut by the Ministry of Education."

The school has again sought legal advice and Mr Kane said closing the school would amount to discrimination against the students under the Human Rights Act.

"The legal costs and fight to keep the school takes a strain on the whole community, we just hope the minister will see sense and keep Salisbury open."

Ms Parata is meeting with the board of trustees to discuss the proposal tomorrow night.

"We hope that the minister takes a lot from her visit," Mr Kane said. "She will hear a special education correspondent talk about working with the students."

Mr Kane said if the school closed most of the students would end up staying at home.

"These young women make phenomenal progress in their learning in just a short time at Salisbury, because they grow in confidence and they feel secure."

Labour Party associate education spokesperson Jenny Salesa said all girls deserved equal access to education in a safe and supportive environment.

"Salisbury has long offered a great learning environment for girls with complex learning needs, so this is just a case of mean-spirited penny-pinching from the minister that is also potentially denying girls their human rights."

New Zealand First education spokesperson Tracey Martin said the government had made up its mind long ago.

"It has to do with money, it has to do with, as Nick Smith said today, the prime real estate the school is sitting on, a 100 percent, in my view, has been orchestrated by this government and this minister."

Ms Parata, meanwhile, said the government had not "managed down" enrolments at the school.

She said the school's roll was falling even before the 2013 introduction of the Intensive Wraparound Service, which led to a decline in demand for residential schooling provision.

"We are seeing an increased number of families opting for localised support that enables them to keep their children at home. Where a residential option is selected, the waiting list for girls to attend Halswell suggests that co-educational education is a preferred choice," she said.

Ms Parata said the system for processing applications was changed in 2013 on the basis of clinical advice.

"Applications are considered by regional panels made up of education and behavioural experts and assessments are made on the basis of student needs, not political considerations."

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