Is your child's school proving to be one long and arduous learning curve? We look at how the law applies to issues such as school fees, sex and religious education, and inappropriate teacher behaviour. We also answer common questions about uniforms, truancy, privacy and other matters.

School fees

State schools

The Education Act says that every child between the ages of 5 and 19 years, who is not a foreign student, "is entitled to free enrolment and free education at any state school".

State schools cannot charge fees for teaching the curriculum - this includes subjects such as computer studies, art, clothing and woodwork courses. But a Massey University study found 1 in 5 schools charged for core subjects.

Schools can charge for any "take home" component of a course, such as artworks, craft and so on.

They can also charge "activity fees" for extra-curricular activities. This includes most sports activity. They can't enforce payment, but can exclude those who don't pay.

Schools can ask for donations to cover general costs, but Ministry of Education guidelines state they should make it clear to parents the donation is voluntary, and the word "fee" should not be used.

Some schools have run into controversy through their zealous collection of "donations". One Auckland college threatened to ban from the school ball all students whose parents had not paid. It was effective - the school netted some $17,000 in 5 days.

The Massey University research found only 29 percent of schools actually told parents the payments were voluntary. Most used wording that implied they were mandatory.

Integrated schools

An integrated school is either a former private school that has joined the state system, or one that has been integrated since creation. They are allowed to retain their special feature or character, which is usually religious or cultural.

Integrated schools can charge attendance dues, but the money raised in this way can be used only for improvement of school buildings and facilities. If your child is enrolled at such a school, you are contractually obliged to pay these dues.

Our advice regarding school fees

  • If you're concerned at the legality of a charge levied by the school, first make sure you know exactly what it's for. Is the activity outside the syllabus? Will it be outside normal school hours? Will the school face additional costs for providing the activity? If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes, the activity is probably optional and the school probably has the right to charge those who participate.
  • If you can't pay a donation or any other kind of charge, talk to the school - they may be able to assist.

Sex and religious education

Sex education

Sex education forms part of the health syllabus right through the school years, and is placed in the broad context of the physical, emotional and social development of children into puberty and through adolescence.

Under the Education Act, students 16 and above, or the parent/caregiver of a student under 16, may ask the principal to be released from a sex education class

Religious instruction

Religious studies topics can turn up in the social studies syllabus and in other areas, but there is not supposed to be any religious instruction or participation in religious practices in a state school.

The Education Act 1964 states that all state primary schools are to be secular. It does allow a certain level of optional religious instruction, one example being the "Bibles in Schools" programme. State secondary schools are not covered by any express requirement to be "secular".

A principal of a state school may release a student from religious or cultural tuition upon receiving a written request from either the student aged 16 and above, or a parent/caregiver of the student aged under 16. The request must be made at least 24 hours before the class in question. Such an application cannot be made at integrated schools.

The principal cannot release a student from tuition unless they are satisfied the request is based on sincerely held religious or cultural views and the student will be adequately supervised (whether within or outside the school) during the tuition.

The principal must also discover the student's views on the matter before making a decision.

Inappropriate teacher behaviour

From time to time, teachers hit the headlines for supplying alcohol to students, accessing pornography or forming inappropriate relationships with students.

If you complain about a teacher, the principal (and board of trustees, if you complain to them) has an obligation to investigate.

Minor matters

These will usually be dealt with by the principal and may require little more than an informal chat. The teacher may undergo a period of supervision or retraining.

Serious misconduct

Once the details of a serious complaint have been assessed, the board will interview the teacher and give them a chance to put their side of the story.

The circumstances of each case will determine the appropriate course. The board can decide to dismiss the complaint, censure the teacher, impose additional training or dismiss the teacher. If there is a suggestion of criminal behaviour, the matter may be handed over to the police.

Mandatory reporting

The Education Act 1989 contains a mandatory reporting regime that requires a board to report in writing to the Teachers Council, about teachers who have resigned or have been dismissed in circumstances related to their competence or behaviour.

Under the Education Standards Act 2001 schools that do not comply with the notification requirements will be liable to a fine of up to $5000. The Act also obliges the courts to report convictions of teachers punishable by imprisonment of 3 months or more, to the New Zealand Teachers Council, within 7 days of the conviction.

Our advice regarding teacher behaviour

  • Try to form a clear idea of what the problem is and what you think should happen, before you contact the school.
  • If an event concerns you, make notes about it - even if you don't intend to lay a complaint. You may change your mind later, and will probably need the notes to help remember what happened.
  • Make your complaint as soon as possible after the event. If there is a delay, explain in your letter why this has occurred - for example, you may have only just found out about it, or your child may have been frightened of the repercussions if you complained.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence. If you write to the principal, send a copy to the board of trustees as well.
  • Often, it's best to raise a matter directly with the teacher in question. But if you think this is inappropriate, take your concern to the principal. If the matter cannot (or should not) be dealt with informally, you will need to put your complaint in writing to the principal. If the complaint is about the principal, it should be in writing to the chairperson of the board of trustees.
  • If there is no satisfactory outcome from a school investigation, or there is a valid reason not to go to the school in the first instance, take your complaint directly to the New Zealand Teachers Council.

General advice

If you're unhappy with the treatment your child has received at school, speak to their teacher first, and then with the principal. Talk to other parents - especially those of any other children who may be in the same situation as your child.

  • Is the problem primarily related to your own child's poor behaviour? In this case, try to find a way to work with the school to improve matters.
  • Is the problem caused by the teacher not coping well? You'll need to discuss this with the principal. Ask for a report back, and monitor progress.
  • Is the problem caused by a difference between your child and the school over the reasonableness of school rules, discipline or educational philosophy? You could consider enrolling your child in another school - but that's not always feasible, and besides, if the school is out of touch, it may be time for the school rules to change. If you're in this situation, talk to other parents. Get a groundswell of support. You won't be able to do it on your own.
  • If you think the school's approach breaks the law, write to the board of trustees - the board is elected to represent your local school community.
  • If you have no luck with the board, you could write to the Education Review Office.