Private, public, mainstream, special, high decile, low decile: Between my son’s and my own education, I’ve seen all these types of schools in action. I attended a private school, then high decile public schools. My son attended a mid-decile Special School then a low decile mainstream public school. I had preconceived notions about the value of a school and its schooling based on these various categories. But what I’ve learned, is this: The most important factor for the quality of education, is something not measured by any of these terms.
My son has high needs (as a fact, and as an education funding category). In order for him to do and be his best in a school environment, he needs access to costly resources and therapists. So what happens when the Special School environment – where he spent two years well-resourced and surrounded by experts – is no longer appropriate for his level of development? When he needs to be surrounded by peers able to communicate and socialize with him at a higher level than found in a Special School?
By shifting to our local mainstream school, we lost that expert access and those special resources, and I knew that was the trade-off. It was a hard decision. Even more so because the school he would now attend was a low decile one, with a reputation too for having more than its “fair share” of troubled children on its roll. It’s apparently known as a “magnet school,” because it appears to attract higher numbers of special students. My own son comes with a dedicated pool of funding, but many special kids with less severe issues are left to access the general pool of special needs funding that each school has to make the most of. This means the school’s personnel and funding is all the more stretched and stressed. Just to make things worse, the school had a less-than-stellar Education Review Office (ERO) report, and had just had the upheaval of a changed Principal. It looks like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it.
But there is a factor that can help compensate for having access to less experts, and for less funding and general resources. A factor that is very hard to meaningfully access through the ERO reports. A factor too that can make the highest decile private school look like a poor alternative if it fails to get it right: The people; the Principal, and most especially, the teacher.
In this way, I am empowered because of my son’s special needs: I can expect and have the school allow me to meet with my son’s intended teachers before deciding where to send him, and to allow me to educate his future teachers year to year. When I chose his first Special School classroom – and yes I was explicitly given the choice of classrooms – I chose the one with the teacher who had the most energy, passion and interest in my son, and warmth towards me as his mother. We made the right choice, she was the best thing that could have happened in my son’s early education.
When it came to a teacher for his mainstream school, I was not given the explicit choice, but I was clearly told that there were a range of teachers to choose from and much time and thought had gone into choosing the right fit for my son, based on the experience and opinion of people who had already worked with my own son and who knew the teachers there well. Similarly, looking ahead to next year, the right teacher for my son is already a talking point among those with the power and influence to make the choice; within the school they recognize the importance of matching my son to the right teacher. This level of consideration and care is immensely reassuring, and sets my son up for success. It makes the most of what resources the school has, the most important resources, the people themselves.
I feel so close and so grateful to my son’s teachers, that each year I find myself hugging them in tearful gratitude. They have always gone above and beyond to try to understand my son and make the most of his strengths, while recognizing and working on his challenges. He is not the easiest student – he needs sameness, he questions authority with “why” a lot, he doesn’t always understand or is able to follow instructions, etc – but he does love learning and enjoys school, there is a lot of good material there for the right teacher to mold and encourage into successes (and not just academic successes).
So yes, it’s a low decile mainstream public school. On the surface, it ticks all the wrong boxes for my son. But what makes it work is the same thing that made his mid-decile public Special School work; it’s the thing that’s hard to measure and difficult to control; it’s the thing that makes the difference between a threatening and closed environment versus a safe and inclusive one:
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata. He tangata. He tangata.
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people. It is people. It is people.