Research evidence does not support the proposed closure of two of New Zealand’s residential schools for children with severe behavioural difficulties, University of Canterbury Professor Garry Hornby said today.
The Ministry of Education plans to close McKenzie Residential School in Christchurch and Salisbury Residential School in Nelson. Today was the final day for submissions to the proposal.
The alternative suggested by the ministry is an expansion of the Wraparound service for children with severe behavioural difficulties, which was developed in the USA.
However, recent reviews of Wraparound in the USA have found limited evidence of its effectiveness. Studies have found high drop-out rates, and for the children who remain in Wraparound its impact on outcomes has been small, indicating that it cannot be considered to be a practice with a sound base of research evidence.
This is supported by the findings of a recent survey in New Zealand conducted by the Principals Federation,’’ Professor Hornby said.
This survey found that, of the schools which had accessed the intensive Wraparound service, 53 percent reported that it did not bring about sustainable positive behaviour change, compared with 19 percent which considered that it had, and 26 percent which considered that it was too early to tell.
This is not surprising because the Wraparound approach depends on support services such as educational psychologists, social workers, and health service personnel working in effective partnerships with schools and families. International research conducted over many years on multi-agency working such as this, has found that, despite good intentions, it is in practice very difficult to carry out effectively.’’
He said research conducted over the past eight years with young people who attended the McKenzie school, found that it was after children returned to mainstream schools following intensive intervention that things would go badly wrong, resulting in most cases of these children leaving the school system before the age of 16.
It was clear that the effectiveness of any service for children with severe behavioural difficulties was dependent on the ability of mainstream schools to cater effectively for them in the long term.
This needs to be the major focus of attention if the education of these children is to be improved and needs to be addressed before any consideration of reducing current provision by closing two of the four residential schools.
This will require the training of all mainstream school teachers and the development of school organisation, so that they all have clear structures for identifying and providing appropriate systems for pupils with special educational needs, including those with behavioural difficulties.
For example, it is important to have trained special educational needs coordinators in all mainstream schools, as was recommended in the Wylie Review of 2000, but has not yet been implemented.
Until these changes are brought about in mainstream schools it is essential to have the two residential schools available to cater for children with severe behavioural difficulties. For some of these children being taken out of their local environment into a residential school is what saves them from a complete meltdown.’’
Not having these schools as a last resort option for very vulnerable children would put enormous stress on mainstream schools they would attend and on their families in trying to cope with them at home, he said.
The move to close these two residential schools in favour of more Wraparound provision is premature and should be put on hold,’’ Professor Hornby said.
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