The unforeseen turmoil, uncertainty and stress brought about by the global pandemic have been felt nowhere more keenly in the education sector, than at schools serving students with high, complex needs.
A pragmatic, positive and purposeful approach to school management has enabled Fairhaven School in Hawkes Bay to lead by example when it comes to recovery and not just survive, but thrive. Heather Barker Vermeer visited the school in term two of 2021…
Principal Diane Whyte is a leader not only at the Taradale special school, where she has been the principal for over seven years, but she is a leader in her field. Her vast knowledge, experience, and empathy – and sense of humour – have stood her and the school in good stead to be able to weather the most collectively difficult storm for teachers nationwide have faced in recent times.
Whyte has tears in her eyes as she recalls the weight of expectation she felt during last year’s first lockdown period. “That sheer feeling of total responsibility to make sure my staff and my students were safe and well was enormous. I’m tearing up just thinking back to that. We [the staff] were all so heightened and vigilant. It was like nothing anyone had ever experienced. And the sands were shifting all the time.”
She has been impressed by the Ministry of Education’s response, which she says has kept her and her staff well-informed throughout the uncertainty. “I seem to recall there were about 180 bulletins that came out from the Ministry, within a timeframe where there would usually have been about 20. Everything was so clearly communicated. I personally think Iona Halstead did an outstanding job.
“We told the ministry that we thought tangible learning support tools were being missed for these students who now had to stay at home, so they worked with us to make up learning support packs. Though they landed just as lockdown was lifted, we now have these to use and are ready to swing into action should we need to again. They did what would normally take months to organise, in a matter of weeks.
“For me, in a really unanticipated way, lockdown supported the lessening of the divide and created an increase in trust between the Ministry and the sector, because we really were in it together.”
Whyte manages a roll of 50 staff, with 18 usually based on site, at the school for five- to 21-year-olds with complex, very high needs stemming from a range of intellectual and physical disabilities. Fairhaven’s Taradale base school has two reception classes and two primary classes, with five satellite units operating from a range of primary, intermediate, and high schools in the area. There is a transition centre, Te Rangimarie, based at Bridge Pa to assist students with transition from school to adult life.
During lockdown, Whyte looked farther afield for inspiration on how to improve outcomes for her roll. She says, “One of our staff asked her teacher friend in the UK what they were doing to help support children with real complex needs. We had an early morning meeting on Zoom with Rosewood School in the UK and got really excited about IMPACT tool they were using there. We were buzzing! It was gap for us.”
After completing six hours of subsequent training, including several 4am videocalls for Rosewood School principal Zoe Evans in the UK, staff were on board with the learning assessment tool and will receive follow up training from the not-for-profit programme throughout the year.
“The brilliant thing is,” Whyte enthuses, “is that it all ties in with Engagement for Learning. Zoe [Evans], who provides us with the training, is really leading the way in this field.”
Whyte ‘fell into special education’ and joined Fairhaven in January 2014, following eight years as principal at Maitai School in Nelson, similarly a non-residential school for children with complex needs. “I never had any intention of specialising in special needs, but once I had a taste for it, I absolutely loved it.”
She has been a key member on the executive of the Special Education Principals’ Association New Zealand (SEPANZ) for over a decade. Past secretary, and currently serving as treasurer, representing the central region, Whyte is a leading industry figure and has assumed many roles within the association. She was on the ministerial advisory group for developing the New Zealand curriculum in 2018-19. “My role was to be there with a special education lens and provide advice to the minister on what should be prioritised for this sector.” She is unimpressed by titles, accolades, and personal praise, however.
“It’s about letting our people shine and providing the support for them to be able to. We can’t have egos in a school like this.”
Like Whyte, Fairhaven’s deputy principal Sioned Oliver moved into ‘special ed’ after teaching in mainstream co-ed schools. She moved to Hawkes Bay from Auckland’s North Shore with her husband and two daughters five years ago and her dynamic, infectious energy has been pivotal in ensuring Fairhaven is leading the way in the special needs education and opportunities it provides.
Oliver’s latest innovative area of development is taking Fairhaven’s students out of the classroom and onto the water. With two teenaged daughters that row, and she recognised that the benefits the sport brought to them could, and should, be able to be experienced by her pupils at her school. She applied for funding for rowing sessions, transport, and special super-thin lifejackets for the pupils to wear.
“We want to give our students the chance to feel what it’s like to be in a boat and be on the water. Sport Hawkes Bay have been brilliant and Rowing New Zealand have also been very supportive of the idea,” says Oliver. She says she would love to one day see her students take to Lake Karapiro alongside able-bodied students and experience the energy and excitement of a regatta. For now, enabling pupils to try out rowing machines and experience education outside the classroom is already having a positive impact.
Oliver says, “One boy notoriously wouldn’t want to come to school if it was a trip day. He came on a rowing one, however, and he was absolutely beaming. He loved it! It’s that sense of achievement and self-confidence of doing something new, which you love, that’s so brilliant.”
Whyte adds, “This project has come about from Sioned’s passion and commitment to getting out there and looking for opportunities for our students. A lot has happened since she moved into the leadership team!”
In terms of the school environment, classrooms at the Fairhaven base are spacious, with plenty of natural light and include many adaptations to cater to students with very limited mobility. Hoists and pully systems connected to tracks on the ceiling enable staff to guide students around the classroom and to specially designed bathroom and changing facilities. Objects of reference and core vocabulary boards are prominent in each classroom, which correlate to ‘handbags’ worn by teachers to help illicit responses from non-verbal students and those with limited language ability.
Improving the school environment means, for Whyte, not only working to support change that will positively benefit students, such as the imminent lowering of some of the school’s work benches, for example, but taking pride in the facilities for staff too. New staff toilets have been part of recent upgrades. Whyte says, “If we create a good environment for staff, it impacts on our students by default. We want both our students and our staff to feel valued and work in an environment they can be proud of.
“We all have our strengths and this last year has given each of us the opportunity to show these and to work together. It’s taught us, more than ever, that we’re a good team!”