Private Versus Public Schools, for Special Needs: The example of the Mt Hobson Middle School controversy

It was with a sad sense of deja vu that I read a story today on, about the treatment of an autistic child at a high decile private school here in New Zealand. The story is one of miscommunication, lack of information, confusion about funding, all culminating in a poor outcome for the child. The child ultimately had a “significant deterioration of his mental state,” a massive regression in his behaviour, and lost interest in activities that he once greatly enjoyed. Once he had been removed from the school and placed in another one (a public, low decile one as I understand it), he returned to his “old self” and is apparently now doing well. The parents had initially chosen the private school thinking it would be in their son’s best interests, particularly because of the small class sizes relative to the average public school. The school is run by a private trust, rather than by the Government.

The end jab of the story told on was a (not very subtle) attack on the Government’s private partnership school policy. It was (apparently) in part because of that push and agenda (but also because of perceived poor journalism), that Cameron Slater at Whale Oil dedicated a post to the rebuttal of the story, with an open letter from the man in charge of the trust that runs the school.

Despite the fact that the open letter was written from the school’s perspective and in the school’s defence, my personal response to it was that there is something wrong with the way the school is being run – specifically for families of children with special needs. In the spokesman’s own words, they do admit that they withhold reports from teachers, on the child’s abilities and behaviours, for an entire term when a child starts the school – just as the family said in a video on the page; professional reports and opinions on what was in the best interests of the child and of what a teacher should know about the child, were actually held back from the teacher. This information is withheld on the reasoning that it would affect the teacher’s expectations for the child. As ideal as this may sound for your “average” child, it is far from any sort of ideal for an autistic child, where seemingly small and innocuous matters can completely throw the child’s ability to function and thrive in a classroom, unless a teacher is aware of them. Think of sensory issues, as a very common and classic example here.

Add to this that the school spokesman also said the school often finds itself in  disagreement with parents because the school prefers to 100% back any child’s ability to “grow and improve” anew at a new school. The wording of this viewpoint tells me that there is something going wrong here with communication between the school, the parents, and the professionals whose opinions are incredibly important when it comes to the education of children with special needs: The idea that the school sees itself in conflict with parents because the school is the one backing the child (implying surely that the family is the group somehow holding the child back), is an inherently antagonistic one.

That is the view I walk away with having read the piece, but also the Whale Oil rebuttal – it is a consistent impression when the story is told from either side.

The school spokesman did say their practices were backed by research about expectations of children and teachers attitudes and the child’s outcome when those expectations were blocked. However, I would point out that there is a difference between the outcomes of research, and the effective implementation of systems set up to achieve those outcomes in real-world and diverse situations. In particular, for that research to be meaningful for autistic children, you would need to compare a school where teachers are actively informed about an autistic child’s background, needs, abilities, anxieties etc, to a school where that key information was with-held (such as appears to be the situation here). Even if – oddly – the withheld version had better results for autistic children, one would have to reassess methods where actual real-world outcomes for a specific student at a specific school evidenced that something was not working well, as appears to be the case here.

Even if we put these specific concerns aside, there is the remaining underlying issue that there is a clear breakdown in communication here between parents and the school, and that a child has suffered because of it. No matter whether the school or the parents are completely correct in their claims in these stories, something vital has still gone terribly wrong, and there need to be serious and honest efforts to figure out what happened, why, and how it can be avoided in the future. Doing so benefits the school, the family, and potentially all other children at that school too.

Yet, sadly, these very real concerns and morals in this story, seem to have got lost in a debate about how the current Government should spend its education dollars when it comes to schools being run by private trusts or other private organisations. That debate and issue is an interesting and important one, but I don’t see how one example of a school that appears to have failed a child of high needs, says anything one way or the other on the issue. Funds can be just as easily misused or seemingly go missing (or not be understood as to how they are being used) at a private school just as much as a public one.

I hear these stories every year, several times a year, from people in person and online – and yes there is a very clear trend that private and high decile schools appear to do a relatively poorer job of accommodating and problem-solving when it comes to children with special needs. Just as often, I hear wonderful success stories of how low decile and public schools appear to excel at making such modifications. I personally put this down to three key factors: (1) the inability of public schools to turn away a child – they are forced to find a way to make it work, (2) the fact that they are used to having to deal with the vast diversity of humankind at extremes that may be less likely to be encountered in a private or well-off school, and so are often more accepting of difference in all its forms, and (3) private and well-off schools classically put academic ability at the forefront of their aims  – that’s fine, they are a school after all, but other priorities and interests also require recognition at schools and most especially for children with special needs, such as basic social skills and other developmental milestones that are missing or so delayed that a school must take them into account on a daily basis if that child is ever to have a chance at academic success.

If this all makes it sound like I am anti private schools or anti private partnerships, then you have missed my point. In fact, I believe we should have a vast diversity of schools just in the same way that society has a vast diversity of students for those schools. I am pro-choice – whether it be public, private, home-schooling, special schools, exclusive schools, etc. I believe all schools should base themselves on the best knowledge and research in the education field, but I do not think the implementation would (or even necessarily should) always be the same in each school, neither do I believe every school should run the exact same curriculum or with the exact same focus – I recognise (and am in favour of) the huge diversity in interests in children, and in the ways they learn, and I am quite happy to see schools variously cater to such diversity with teachers most passionate about teaching within the sorts of schools that suit them best too. And this gets me to my point then: Within such diversity, a school should always be communicating well and openly with parents, should always be responding when a child is in crisis, should always be able to account for the support and funding that was tagged to a specific child. Private or public or anywhere in between, accountability and communication are always important at any school, and that is where I see the failure here.

I want to end by saying I have no inside knowledge or private communications with the affected parties of this school. I have purely based what I have written on what is said in the piece at Whale Oil,, the videos on, and on my personal experience and conversations with other families and interactions with a variety of schools. Feel free to correct me, or disagree with me – that is the nature of the interactive endeavour that is blogging. It allows us to share a different perspective; as always I’d love to hear yours too.


Update: The Principal of the school and spokesman for the trust that runs the school had reached out to me and invited me to come visit the school for myself. I had accepted his invitation and had arranged for the visit to go ahead, but had to cancel at the last minute due to an unavoidable clash with another urgent appointment. At this stage I haven’t arranged a replacement visit because of other long-standing family commitments. If I get the chance to follow through with a visit anytime soon, I will do an update accordingly.

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10 Responses to Private Versus Public Schools, for Special Needs: The example of the Mt Hobson Middle School controversy

  1. Aunt Benjy says:

    I really hate that this was posted on WhaleOil…it tends to attract people who think like this:

    Having just read the article, it seems the main gripe the parents have is that after the boy started attending the school,

    “His behavior at home was the worst I have ever experienced. He was
    abusive, non-compliant, he was self-harming, he was screaming, slamming
    doors, refusing to eat.”

    It seems to me that the parents have expected this school to provide some kind of magic cure all for their autistic son and that simply sending him there would effect an ongoing change in his behavior.

    Maybe it’s the parenting style that has elicited this behavior in the home rather than anything the school has done.

    Maybe the sooner the parents accept that their son has this disability and start proactively dealing with it, instead of expecting others to take the lead the sooner they may see some positive response in their sons behavior in the home.

    Attitude is everything.

    I know without being told which days my son’s TA has been away sick (doesn’t happen often, fortunately) because he comes home stressed to the max, and has meltdowns all evening. Some people just have no clue.

    • That comment from Whale Oil is so very ignorant – not just of what families go through to help our kids, nor just in regards to how much a school can and does impact on the behaviours of our kids, but particularly in regards to the actual facts of this case, because we are expressly told the boy was doing quite well both before and after that school experience. So frustrating dealing with people like that – people who appear to have had little or no actual experience with autism, but are certain they have all the answers.

  2. aotearoaange says:

    All I can say is a mum of now adult children on the spectrum is the school years are tough and there are myriads of reasons for that- which are not necessarily anyone’s “fault” but it makes us feel better if we can rationalise it in this way. I have never personally used Mt Hobson but I have to say I know three AS young adults who were extremely well supported by this school and its principal. It’s tough being the parent of a child who struggles to fit into school. Be kind to yourself-Kia kaha.

    • Thanks for sharing your knowledge of experiences at the school, it’s important to hear how others have experienced it. That perhaps feeds into the idea that this is a single story about one situation of a broken relationship between a school and the parents, rather than something intrinsically wrong with the school’s approach – though I still worry that the way the school talks of and has dealt with this family shows there is something concerning and problematic in their approach to autistic kids in particular. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Kiri says:

    We approached Mt Hobson because we had been told that they do a wonderful job of supporting ASD and other students with special needs. I have to say that the enrollment interview was one of the worst experiences I have had as the parent of a child with autism. The principal’s derrogatory comments about my daughter — which he made in front of her — left me in tears. So much for Christian values!

    Our local, high decile school was the exact opposite. We were made to feel very welcome by all the staff and my daughter loves school and is doing much better than we ever expected her to.

  4. Grateful Parents says:

    Our child attends Mt Hobson and has for several years He has Aspergers, anxiety issues, amongst other problems. We found the headmaster very caring and honest in the initial interview. He did not avoid difficult subjects but we felt hopeful.

    Our child had not been doing very well at his previous decile 10 local school (in fact the headmaster had strongly suggested we should take him out of school and home school him). It took a couple of terms at Mt Hobson for him to adapt, but we felt supported during that time and he has gone on to thrive. His social skills are so much better and he has gone on to achieve really well academically (from being in remedial classes to getting A’s in effort and achievement).

    We honestly do not think he would have achieved this at many (if any) other schools.

  5. Joanne Clyde says:

    One of the reasons I love reading your blog is the opportunity it gives me to compare your New Zealand school system with the school systems here in the United States. There is a debate here as well about how the governments (federal, state, and local) spend the money set aside for education. The private vs. public, pro-choice vs. local, local schools vs. public charter / magnet schools debate sometimes becomes especially virulent with conspiracy theorists decrying the movement towards school choice as an effort by Republicans to dismantle public school altogether.

    As an example; the City of Chicago shuttered over 50 “underutilized” public schools in the cities poorest neighborhoods, and then a few months later, posted a request for private organizations to open charter schools in 11 neighborhoods that had “overcrowded” schools to be supported with the public tax money “saved” by closing the schools. Most of these overcrowded schools were in neighborhoods that had seen school closures due to “under-utilization.” (While I do not usually like Huffington Post because sometimes their writing is un-balanced, they have a decent article that links to some additional information. (

    More recently, the debate about funding and school choice has hit the state of Indiana (the state next door to Illinois – some residents of Indiana commute to work in Chicago, Illinois) really hard. (The Chicago Tribune is sometimes iffy with some articles randomly behind a pay wall and others not. I hope this one isn’t behind a paywall for you.)

    To tie into your article, the city of New Orleans has gotten rid of all of their public schools and is now the nation’s only entirely charter-school district. There have been several law suits alleging that the charters are not providing services for students with special needs, and in fact encouraging parents to withdraw from one charter to go to another. (article here: On the other hand, a study of schools in Denver, Colorado, shows that the gap in IEP (Individualized Education Plan) students isn’t driven by being ‘counseled’ out of charter schools. (

    Education Week (one of the leading Education newspapers here in America) had an excellent article from 2014 specifically talking about Special Education focused Charter Schools that I think you will be especially interested in. (Typically, is behind a paywall, but you get 3 free articles a month without paying, so you you should be able to read it.)

    I apologize for going on a tangent about the American system in the comments of your blog – hereby cementing the stereotype of “I’m an American, look at me! look at me!” 😉 – but the opportunity to compare the similarities of the education debates was too much!

    Thank you for writing such a great blog, and being such an advocate for students with special needs. I still recommend your blog to anybody who talks to me about special education and, more specifically, students with Autism.

  6. Kiri says:

    I’m glad to hear that Mt Hobson has been supportive of children with Aspergers. I hope the school will continue to be so. I am, however, very tired of hearing about organziations in New Zealand who “provide support and services for children with autism,” when what they really mean is that they support high functioning children with Aspergers. There is a reason why it’s called a spectrum and it seems to me that those who need the most help get the least help.

  7. Donna Ann says:

    I have two children that are schooled at home, one has aspergers syndrome and he has been to three different schools. He loved getting reactions from the teachers and they played right into his hands. My son needed someone to be firm with him, there was one school where the Principal was that sort of person, she gave a dam and his learning improved for the first time, but sadly she retired and another weak principal took over and my son was stood down. Aspergers children don’t get any more support than autistic kids as they are higher functioning and don’t qualify for any extra. Kids with Classic Autism are ORRS funded and have units for schooling, OTS and speech therapy and can stay at school till they are 21, get taxis to and from school. If my son’s teacher aide was sick, he was sent home. I would go to school and find my son playing in the sandpit by himself while the other kids were in class. If there was a relief teacher and no one had told us (which was all the time) my son couldn’t handle change so he wouldn’t stay in class, so I would be sitting out in the playground with him, wondering, what now. No one came to help me. Everyone we had to help us at meetings were so pc, no one wanted to say anything bad as they had to maintain a “relationship” with the school. In our experience it was not if the school was private/public as we have been to both, but attitude, lack of experience and because they could, because who was going to make them? My youngest boy was bullied at two schools and now has severe anxiety. Some schools won’t admit to a problem with bullying, because they don’t want people to find out, effects their reputations and if the bully is in top sports team and giving the school a good name or trophies and the victim is a shy anxious kid who is not top sportsman, they blame them. If they hadn’t done that, then that wouldn’t have happened.
    The name for all people with autism now is ASD, aspergers has gone and they have one name for the disorder. But there is discrimination in this as everyone are not all treated equally. One day it would be good if the help you got was what you needed to be successful at school and life, not on the number you fall on the spectrum as some higher functioning people may need more support in areas that a less functioning may, or vice versa, but be judged on individual cases.

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