The Salisbury story

January 2013

 

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When Judge Dobson overruled the Ministry of Education’s decision to close Salisbury School, many were relieved. But the threat of closure has cast a question mark over the future of special education in New Zealand.

Here, Salisbury principal BRENDA ELLIS explains why research and experience indicate the need for single-sex special education schools.

Salisbury School is a national residential special education school for post-primary aged girls with intellectual impairment and complex learning, social, and emotional needs. It is the only residential school for female students with intellectual impairment in New Zealand and is based in the Nelson suburb of Richmond.

The purpose of Salisbury is to provide academic, social, and life-skills education for girls who are neither achieving nor experiencing success in their current mainstream school setting. All Salisbury students require significant adaptation of the curriculum as their learning needs are well below those of their same-aged peers. Prior to coming to Salisbury, it is not uncommon for students to be enrolled in a mainstream secondary school but be functioning at, or below, Level 1 of the primary school curriculum. At Salisbury School, each girl has her own individual learning programme, and because the girls live at the school, programmes are able to run across both the day school and the residential setting, seven days a week.

Individual learning programmes are based on the key competencies in the National Curriculum, with a particular focus on reading, writing, and mathematics – the aim being to better prepare the girls for independent or semi-independent life beyond school. As well as academic, social and life-skills programmes, a key focus for staff is teaching the girls the skills required to successfully manage inclusive education settings, so that when they return to their mainstream school, they are better able to cope with the demands placed on them. It is this inability to cope in the mainstream that has been a decisive factor in seeking enrolment at Salisbury.

Historically, Salisbury School has had a notional roll of 80 girls who come from throughout New Zealand, including remote and rural areas such as Great Barrier Island, Central Otago, and small settlements on the East Coast of the North Island, as well as from larger cities. Up to 30 per cent of students are Māori, and in recent years, this has been as high as 50 per cent. Girls may enrol for a period of up to two years and are between Years 7 and 10 at the time of their enrolment. The school focusses keenly on addressing the Minister of Education’s three key priority areas of reducing the long tail of underachievement, providing culturally responsive programmes that support Māori students achieving success as Māori, and improving the levels of support for students with special education needs and their families.

Prior to 2013, there have been four residential schools for special education students in New Zealand, two for intellectually impaired post-primary-aged students and two for primary-aged students with behaviour and conduct disorders.

In May 2012, the Minister of Education proposed that one or more of the four residential special schools could face closure and following a period of consultation, a preliminary decision was made to close McKenzie Residential School for students with behaviour and conduct disorders and Salisbury School at the end of the 2012 academic year. It was proposed that the Salisbury girls would be offered the opportunity to relocate to Halswell Residential College in Christchurch, currently a residential school for boys with intellectual impairment, which would then become a co-educational residential school for post-primary male and female students from 2013.

Salisbury Board of Trustees is aware the girls that attend Salisbury School are uniquely vulnerable to abuse. A review of Salisbury School files of individual students who had attended the school throughout the last 15 years determined that 63 per cent of students had a known history of physical and/or emotional abuse on entry into Salisbury. In addition, while at Salisbury and only after a settling-in period and when they felt safe to do so, 47 per cent of girls made disclosures relating to incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated prior to their admission to Salisbury. These figures are consistent with earlier research undertaken at Salisbury that found more than 40 per cent of girls had been the victims of rape and other sexual abuse prior to their admission to the school.

A substantial body of literature purports that girls with learning disabilities are up to seven times more likely to suffer abuse, including sexual abuse, than non-disabled children of the same age. A subsequent review of internationally published research highlighted alarmingly consistent levels of abuse amongst students with intellectual impairment, with boys suffering consistently similar levels of abuse as girls.While the impact of this abuse affects young people with disabilities in varied and complex ways, there is evidence to suggest that girls have the potential to be re-victimised, while boys may go on to become abusers (Sobsey, 1994; Abel & Harlow, 1991; Briggs & Hawkins, 2006).

In the light of the high level of concern regarding these findings, the Salisbury School Board of Trustees sought a judicial review of the Minister’s decision to close the school and make Halswell Residential College co-educational. Research presented to the High Court highlights the risks for young people with intellectual impairment and clearly indicates that putting two such vulnerable groups of young people together creates an unacceptably high level of risk for both female and male students.

Moreover, in announcing his decision in favour of the school, Justice Dobson stated “no great leap in logic is required to recognise the validity of concerns over having boys and girls together for the educational aspects of residential special needs education, even if completely effective separation of the residential aspects of schooling in a co-educational setting is achieved. Those changes introduce a risk that would not be present in the single sex environment at Salisbury School”.

There is clearly much work to be done in understanding the factors that influence the disproportionately high levels of abuse amongst female and male students with intellectual impairment and learning disabilities. It is interesting to note that for this cohort of students, in almost one hundred years of residential education in New Zealand, schooling has always been single sex. It is not unreasonable to assume, given the substantial body of research and as a matter of common sense, that the risk of sexual abuse for girls with impaired intellect is likely to increase if the single sex nature of residential schooling were to change.

While Salisbury School’s future is assured for 2013 following Justice Dobson’s decision finding in favour of the school, the Board of Trustees will now shift its focus to securing the school’s future beyond this year in order to ensure that many more generations of girls with intellectual impairmentand complex learning needs can continue to benefit from the “extraordinary education” Salisbury School provides.


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