An open letter on the plans to expand enrolments in residential special schools


28 April 2022

Education for All (EFA) shares the Government’s stated commitment to upholding the right of all children and young people to an inclusive education with the support they need to learn and succeed on an equal basis with others. The undersigned members of EFA are therefore deeply concerned by Government plans to expand enrolments in the three remaining Residential Specialist Schools, namely Salisbury School in Nelson, Halswell in Christchurch, and Westbridge in Auckland.

We believe that this is a serious equity issue. Financial resources that could be directed at effective educational inclusion are being used to support an outdated model of how to care for young disabled New Zealanders. Curently children and young people attending Residential Specialist Schools receive between ten and twenty times the highest average level of resourcing as a child or young person attending their local school. We understand that all families need effective support and respite, however there are good tested ways to provide this that are consistent with Government policy for inclusion, reflect modern practice and keep children in their communities.

The progressive loosening of enrolment criteria since 2018 means the residential schools are being opened up for disabled children and young people who, under present government policy, live with their whānau and receive learning support for ‘moderate needs’ at their local school. This is clearly a retrograde step and inconsistent with New Zealand’s obligations to progressively realise Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There has been no open consultation on this plan but only what the Ministry of Education described as ‘targeted engagement’. In the interim, Salisbury School has been recruiting new students with advertisements on buses in Christchurch and Wellington and by writing to school principals and disability groups throughout NZ saying “send us your girls.”

We need to learn from Aotearoa’s sad history of institutionalisation of disabled children and young people, including Residential Specialist Schools. The last of the old institutions, Kimberley Psychopaedic Hospital, closed in 2006. The number of Residential Specialist Schools has decreased, and the number of students in Residential Specialist Schools has steadily declined from 182 students in 2010 to just 17 students across the three remaining schools in 2021.

In 2023 the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care will report its findings to the Governor General.   From the hearings so far, we have all learned that over half of the people abused in state care were disabled. We have learned that Māori were disproportionately represented in who were sent to these schools. Māori continue to be over-represented in the current Residential Specialist School rolls. 

Unlike every other school in New Zealand, the remaining Residential Specialist Schools have been funded for years on a notional roll of 84 students which has far exceeded actual rolls. The actual enrolments have averaged 31 or fewer over the last 5 years, from 2020 total enrolments have been less than 20. We have schools and communities in New Zealand who work very hard with far far less funding to support disabled students, families and teachers and we know from decades of reviews and complaints that they need better support. Where the average cost per student in a Residential Specialist School was $448,000 in 2020 (and as high as $889,000 per student at Salisbury which had only four students), other state schools receive a mere fraction of that.  Students who meet the criteria for the highest level of school and community based services under Te Kāhu Tōī/Intensive Wrapround Service or Ongoing Resourcing Scheme, for example, receive additional funding of on average $44,000 and $15,000 respectively, many receive less. It appears the Government’s answer to this dilemma is to fill up the three residential schools in an attempt to justify their running costs, rather than adhering to their own policies for inclusion, and ensuring that parents have the genuine choice of an inclusive education for their disabled child which the government has promised them. We believe that public monies must be equitably distributed to local communities and schools where it is needed.


Yours sincerely

Education for All


Supported by the following Education for All forum members:

  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network of Australia and New Zealand
  • Bay of Plenty Down Syndrome Association Incorporated
  • Blind Citizens NZ
  • Disabled Persons Assembly NZ
  • Donald Beasley Institute
  • Family Network NZ
  • Inclusive Action Group Incorporated
  • IHC
  • Learning Disability & Down syndrome New Zealand
  • New Zealand Down Syndrome Association
  • Parent to Parent
  • People First New Zealand Inc.  - Ngā Tāngata Tuatahi
  • Supporting teaching practice for students with learning disability and Down syndrome
  • VIPs Equity in Education
  • Workbridge


For more information contact:

Giovanni Tiso. Tel 021 079 1183, email [email protected]                       

Bernadette Macartney. Tel 027 7219 106, email [email protected]