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Australia Brisbane parents fear for their children's wellbeing due to school's uncertain future

02:31  13 june  2021
02:31  13 june  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Sonya Meredith says her 14-year-old son would not be alive if it was not for a small state school on Brisbane's southside, and now she and other parents are fighting for its future.

The Barrett Adolescent Centre Special School (BACSS) at Tennyson caters for about 30 students with complex mental health needs who need support re-engaging with their education.

The high school helps transition its students either back to mainstream schooling or into university, an apprenticeship, TAFE or work.

Ms Meredith's son has autism spectrum disorder with ADHD and had a "post-traumatic-like response" to attending Year 7 at his previous school in 2019.

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"It overloaded his nervous system and so he began to shut down," she said.

"With his logic, the only way that he could quieten his mind when he looked at it was not to be here."

Her son ended up in the psychiatric unit at the Queensland Children's Hospital and after a four-month desperate search for an alternative school, was referred to the Barrett school by a psychologist.

"We had a 360-degree turnaround with my son," Ms Meredith said.

"He felt safe, so he began attending school again and from day one, he hasn't missed a day.

"As for seeing the impacts on his wellbeing, that's fairly simple in that he's alive."

The ABC has spoken to staff and parents within the Barrett school community who have concerns about the school's future, with some fearing it may be shut down or transitioned to a program.

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Ms Meredith said the school was a lifeline for her son and wanted to see it receive long-term funding.

"There is no other option for children like my son," she said.

"If Barrett was not an option for him, he would progressively spiral, resulting in him taking his own life."

The school is run by the Queensland Education Department and had operated alongside the Barrett Adolescent Centre at Wacol, which was closed in 2014.

Three teenagers died by suicide within eight months of the long-term residential mental health centre being shut down.

The school continued to run and was moved to a temporary home at Yeronga State High School before relocating to Tennyson in 2015.

Barrett school helps find pathways

Teenager Eloise Schubert has autism, anxiety and depression, and started attending Barrett last year for Year 10 after being unable to cope with mainstream and home schooling.

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"I had a lot of problems with anxiety, and even in primary school I had so many panic attacks and I was just very stressed constantly," Ms Schubert said.

"I also found it very hard to be in different environments and to focus.

"I'm so glad I found Barrett because I was so lost at the time.

"I finally found a place where I can go every day and they help with what pathways work for me."

The 16-year-old is completing a screen and media course at TAFE one day a week and hopes to turn her passion for drawing into a career in gaming art design.

Her mother Vicki Stein said without Barrett her daughter would have finished school at the end of Year 9.

"She was just happy and not stressed," Ms Stein said.

"The big thing with Barrett is that they just accept you for who you are.

"They get the curriculum to work with the kid, rather than the kids trying to fit in with the curriculum.

"They have a case manager teacher who oversees a group of students and you have that one point of call.

"It doesn't come from that attitude that there's a problem with the child and the parent — when in fact the education setting just wasn't right."

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Concern about school's future

After the ABC contacted Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace's office with questions about ongoing funding for the Barrett school, the state government committed to fund it for 2022.

"I'm pleased to say that the BACSS will continue to operate at its current site in 2022 and we are maintaining our funding for the centre," Ms Grace said.

"I emphasise that all schools have specialist staff to support students experiencing mental health concerns, including guidance officers, school-based youth health nurses and regional mental health advisors."

No long-term funding plan, parents say

But Ms Meredith said there was still no long-term plan from the Education Department to fund the school and continue it in its current model.

"There isn't any other place for these children," Ms Meredith said.

"Where else do these children go? They would just become a different type of statistic, and not a good one.

"With the families that attend Barrett they are already living under extreme stresses and having this level of uncertainty only compounds families that are already challenged."

Ms Stein said Barrett needed to continue as a school and not be turned into a service or program as it could lose its autonomy.

"The issue with that is the school environment is gone, and it can be closed without any community consultation," Ms Stein said.

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"The teachers and the principal have their contracts renewed every 12 months, so for every 12 months, they don't know what's happening.

"It would just be nice for it to be an accepted permanent fixture of the education system."

Schools 'fulfil a very specific need'

Griffith University Master of Secondary Teaching director Glenda McGregor said the majority of young people should be catered to in mainstream school, but there was always a need for centres like Barrett.

"This is really essential for young people," Dr McGregor said.

"Schooling disengagement isn't something that is particular to students with mental health, it can occur for a great variety of reasons.

"We need wraparound services and flexible sites to cater to diverse needs — centres like Barrett certainly fulfil a very specific need."

Dr McGregor said flexible learning centres catered to about 70,000 young people across Australia.

Clinical psychologist Georgia Watkins-Allen provides support and supervision to teachers at Barrett school under the wellbeing program and said the school's model was unique in Queensland.

"Barrett provides a really unique model that really puts the student at the centre of their focus while acknowledging their mental health needs," Ms Watkins-Allen said.

"The school model works particularly then that you need staff that have a really great understanding of both how to work with those individual needs and mental health so they access the curriculum well.

"As far as I'm aware there is no other school in Queensland that operates like Barrett."

Ms Watkins-Allen said Barrett offered a flexible learning environment with teachers that provided speciality support in mental health.

"We're seeing a larger percentage of young people who just aren't managing in the mainstream schools anymore, so a lot of them are turning towards distance education," she said.

"But trying to work at home is really hard to do when you're already struggling, so Barrett will often support kids like that who just need somewhere to go and get great care, support and understanding.

"They also have a really good student-to-staff ratio, which is definitely one of the things that is really important to young people doing well."

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