It was with a sad sense of deja vu that I read a story today on Stuff.co.nz, 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 Stuff.co.nz 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 Stuff.co.nz 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 Stuff.co.nz 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, Stuff.co.nz, the videos on Stuff.co.nz, 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.