An autistic student who suffered ongoing bullying at a Pakuranga school has been allowed to attend an out-of-zone school to start afresh.

Parents Andrew and Tracey Hill said they were “ecstatic” after the Ministry of Education told them their 12-year-old son would be able to move to a new school, after last year turning down the family’s request for a directed enrolment.

Andrew Hill said the family was overwhelmed with supportive messages after the case was reported in the media last week, and his son was relieved to be able to move to another school, after a year of being badly bullied at Pakuranga Intermediate School.

“He is just walking on air,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable, we still can’t believe it,” Andrew Hill told the New Zealand Herald.

Pakuranga Intermediate principal Stephen Johnston said in a written statement to the Herald that the school “worked with the family and child to support his transition into intermediate schooling and throughout the past year”.

“In this time, the school, Ministry of Education senior advisers and the Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour service had worked hard to support the child’s needs,” he said.

Ministry guidelines say that parents seeking a directive must provide “specialist medical or psychological or other expert opinion” and that the Ministry will consult with a school board before directing it to enrol any student.

Directed enrolments are not commonly used to address issues of educational access for children with special educational needs or those who have been bullied, Youthlaw senior solicitor Jennifer Walsh told the Herald.

“As a consequence, if it’s a bullying issue, they are more inclined to say we can deal with it in the school where it’s arisen.”

Ministry of Education acting deputy secretary Susan Howan says while rare, it is a useful provision in some cases.

“Occasionally it can be in the best interests of a student to move to a different school. If necessary, the Ministry has the power to direct a school to accept an out-of-zone student.

“This provision is not used often, but it is used in cases where there would be serious consequences for a student in not being enrolled in a particular school. Sometimes bullying is a factor in out-of-zone enrolments,” she says.

Bullying is taken seriously, and the Ministry offers a range of support to schools, including the Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) School-Wide programme that aims to create and maintain a supportive and safe culture in schools.

“Bullying is not okay. Every child and young person should feel safe at school,” she says. “Principals and their staff do a lot of work to prevent bullying and in most instances, when it occurs, they are able to deal with it satisfactorily themselves. Schools use a variety of approaches to promote wellbeing and belonging for all students.

“We help schools to prevent bullying by providing a range of resources, including a guide for parents and guidance on developing and implementing anti-bullying strategies.”

However, a national advocacy group believes the Ministry needs to improve the support offered and be more transparent when making decisions about directed enrolments.

VIPS – Equity in Education is an online advocacy forum for special needs education with a diverse membership base that includes educators and parents.

Commenting on social media, the group expressed dismay about the Ministry of Education’s decision.

“Allowing a bullied autistic student to swap schools out of zone is not a victory, or a breakthrough. Cutting a bit of clerical red tape doesn’t address the bullying or lack of support the previous school offered,” they tweeted.

In a group response to Education Central’s questions, VIPS says the Ministry’s intervention in this particular case seems to be arbitrary.

“Many families describe being repeatedly let down by the Ministry’s lack of assistance, instead deferring to schools’ self-governing autonomy,” they say.

“While it is good to see the Ministry finally intervening on behalf of a student, it fails to address every child’s right to attend and be safe in their local school. It is not always practical for families to travel elsewhere, especially if a student has additional learning needs. Increased in-school support can benefit all children and staff.”

More needs to be done in schools where bullying is a serious issue, says VIPS.

“If a school board of trustees and their staff are not meeting their obligations, then the Ministry should act to address it. At present, Ministry guidelines and school policies are simply empty words without anyone to enforce them.

“The Ministry’s decision to intervene in this situation appears to be arbitrary, and in response to media pressure.”

VIPS believes the Ministry needs to better support students to attend their local school by improving the way complaints are handled, and providing better transparency of their own decision making processes.

“Moving schools should be available to families without excessive burden to provide expensive specialist reports, which not everyone can afford, or being subjected to a long, arduous, arbitrary, unbalanced process.

“Due to the Ministry’s repeated failure to support students in the current self-governing school model, we feel the establishment of an independent complaints authority for education issues is well overdue,” says the group.

Useful information for schools

Tackling bullying as early as possible is the most effective way to limit the damaging impact that it can have, and give children the best possible chance in life. The Ministry of Education has a bullying prevention and response guide for schools, containing information on programmes, strategies and tools available.

There are a large number of tools and resources on the Bullying Free NZ website which school leaders are encouraged to use, including a new guide for school trustees.

The Education Review Office (ERO) checks if schools have clear documentation, reporting of incidents and serious harm, bullying prevention procedures and anonymous surveys (where necessary). They also look at whether wellbeing and inclusion is monitored and if the school uses the Wellbeing@School survey.

ERO’s School Trustees Booklet Helping you ask the right questions can be accessed on ERO’s website.

ERO’s work on wellbeing provides school leaders and teachers with good ideas and models to support them in promoting wellbeing for their students – Wellbeing for Success – a resource for schools.

Information about 11P Directed Enrolments can be accessed on the Education Ministry’s website.

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