A New Direction

From One In Five, 7:06 pm on 26 April 2015

Sarah Jane with One Direction in her bedroom at Salisbury SchoolSarah-Jane is like many teenage girls. The walls of her room at Nelson's Salisbury School are covered in One Direction posters. And her own life has taken a change in direction.

Salisbury School caters for girls with intellectual disabilities and social and learning difficulties. And Sarah-Jane says, while she struggled with academic subjects at her previous college, at Salisbury she's found it easier to learn. "I guess it’s just about the opportunities that you don't really get. [at college] "

And, while she admits she misses her parents, she says the environment at Salisbury is fun. Returning to the facility after the holidays, she’s been keen to catch up with her friends but also eager to get back into school work. "Learning and seeing where the opportunities might take me".

Photo: Sarah-Jane in her bedroom at Salisbury School

A School Worth Fighting For

Salisbury School's principal, Brenda Ellis, started her career as a primary teacher in Otara, South Auckland. She says that experience has coloured everything she has done in education since. "I have always felt [...] a sense of wanting to improve outcomes [...] for vulnerable and disadvantaged young people."

But in 2012 the Education Minister, Hekia Parata, proposed closing Salisbury School and making Christchurch's Halswell Residential College for Boys co-educational. She says Salisbury's board felt strongly that parents should have a choice of educational options. "For us, that was worth fighting for."

Weaving and karate
Left: Weaving is one of the classroom activities at Salisbury School. Right: Students attend karate lessons each week

The school sought a judicial review and the High Court ruled that the proposed closure was unlawful. In mid-2013 Hekia Parata confirmed that Salisbury School would stay open. Ms Ellis says the focus is now on getting more students into the school, with only ten currently enrolled.

She says referrals come through an intensive wraparound service but she believes some parents find it hard to access a residential education for their children. She says the school is now working closely with the Ministry to explore re-establishing its own enrolment process, which would provide a second route into the facility.

"A Magic Place"

That's how Sue Stuart describes Nelson's Salisbury SchoolAshley Renon and Bailey have been learning to flat together. An employee for 34 years, she says the facility gives young women who have previously struggled to achieve or make friends, the skills to change their circumstances. "That's what happens: they get friendships, they achieve. They are not at the back of the classroom being ignored or bullied [...]. Here they've got everything."

Photo: Ashley, Renon and Bailey have been learning to flat together

Mrs Stuart admits staff "have been known to shed the odd tear" when the girls, who are mostly on 18-month placements, leave. And she says, over the years, she has received many letters from former students. "You can't get anything more rewarding than that." 

Students explore the Richmond Fire Engine
Students explore the Richmond Fire Engine