Van Asch Deaf Education Centre’s story began in 1873 when the Hon. Colonel Brett, a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council, asked whether any information had been gathered on “the condition of the deaf, dumb and blind residing in New Zealand”. From this, information was gathered, but nothing was done because there were insufficient funds and eventually this council was replaced by a central government in 1876. In 1878 Colonel Brett asked the government to establish a school for the blind, deaf and dumb but was told that it would be the local community’s responsibility. This was the same for many schools overseas where parents paid fees for their children to attend special schools run by private or charitable organisations like churches.
In 1878 William Rolleston was a member of the House of Representatives in the Government. He pushed for the Government to start a school for Deaf in New Zealand because he was unhappy about sending Deaf children to school in Australia.
The Reverend Bradley offered some land in Charteris Bay in Lyttleton Harbour to the Government for a school. The Government agreed in principle to pay rent, and subsidise students but did nothing. The Rev Bradley had brought a Teacher of the Deaf named Dorcas Mitchell from England to teach his deaf children years before. Dorcas Mitchell wrote offering her services as Principal, but she was turned down. Eventually, she moved to the Chatham Islands and married a local farmer there and retired there. She is buried in Linwood Cemetery in Christchurch.
Sumner was chosen as the site for the new school and Gerrit van Asch was appointed as Director of the new school. Mr van Asch and his family moved to New Zealand to a house called Beach Glen. From there they started with 5 pupils - Charles Horton, Henry Theyer, John Bone, John Weastall and Helen Tullock.
Mr van Asch taught via the oral method and was the only qualified teacher when the school began. He was personally responsible for training successive generations of teachers in the pure oral method.
In 1980 the school celebrated its 100th Centenary. It is the oldest fully government funded residential school for the Deaf in the world and it is also the oldest special education facility in New Zealand.
In 1979 the school introduced Total Communication (a form of signed English with oral). This was used for a number of years until the New Zealand Sign Language Education Policy (Bilingual Bicultural) was formally ratified by the Board of Trustees in 1994.
The first Bilingual Bicultural class was started in 1997 along with a Deaf Studies Curriculum.
Over the years many buildings, staff and students have come and gone from the centre.