Schools and the law

From donations to uniforms, we explain your legal rights.

High school students and teacher in classroom.

Does your child have to wear his uniform on a school trip? What happens if you take your daughter on an overseas holiday during term? We answer common questions about schools and the law.

Fees and donations

Can state schools charge fees?

State schools can’t charge fees for teaching the curriculum. This includes subjects such as art, computer studies and woodwork.

The Education Act says every child aged between five and 19 years old, who is not a foreign student, “is entitled to free enrolment and free education at any state school”.

That said, you’re on the hook for stationery and uniforms (if the school requires them).

Schools can charge "activity fees" for extracurricular activities your child participates in, such as after-school sports.

If you're concerned about the legality of a fee, ask exactly what it's for. If it’s going towards an activity that’s not part of the curriculum or is outside normal school hours, then it’s optional and the school can charge those who take part.

What about donations?

Schools can ask for donations to cover general costs but they should make it clear to parents the donation is voluntary. The word "fee" shouldn’t be used.

Schools that don’t ask for donations will soon get extra government funding of $150 per student. Law changes before parliament give the Minister of Education the ability to give grants to schools that don’t request voluntary donations from parents.

This funding is earmarked for decile one to seven schools (the decile indicates the wealth of the school’s community – decile one schools are in the lowest-income areas).

Is it different for integrated and private schools?

A state-integrated school is a former private school that’s joined the state system. The schools 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 can be used only for improvement of school buildings and facilities. If your child is enrolled at an integrated school, you’re contractually obliged to pay these fees.

Private schools set their own tuition fees, which you must pay.

Attendance and truancy rules

Can I take my daughter out of school for a few days’ holiday?

Under the Education Act, every child between the ages of six and 16 must attend school, unless they’re sick, have suffered a family bereavement, or have some other compelling reason for being away. Generally, a holiday won’t cut it.

What sort of legal action can the school take against me if I just do it anyway?

A parent can be fined $30 for each day their child is absent from school without excuse. (This also applies to Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu – formerly the Correspondence School – students who haven’t logged on during the hours they should.)

Failure to enrol a child between the ages of six and 16 can also result in a $3000 fine. Police and Oranga Tamariki (the Ministry for Children) may become involved.

What action can the school take against my daughter?

The principal can (somewhat ironically) suspend her for truancy. If she is absent from her school for 20 consecutive school days without explanation, the principal can remove her from the school roll.

My son is often truant from school. What can I do?

Contact the school. It has a responsibility to ensure truancy is looked into and to help fix the situation. The school should talk to you about what’s happening and may suggest a meeting. It can make a referral to the Attendance Service if things don’t improve.

Uniforms and appearance

Does my child have to wear a uniform?

Yes. The Education Act gives a school's board of trustees the power to make rules for its school. By enrolling your child at the school, it's implied you’ve accepted those rules, including any uniform requirement. A school can also insist students wear their uniforms on trips (including during out-of-school hours).

My kid’s school has an exclusive arrangement with a uniform manufacturer, which means there’s only one place you can buy gear. Can it do this?

Schools can have exclusive arrangements with suppliers, provided these deals don’t breach the Commerce Act.

An arrangement would risk breaching the act if it substantially lessened competition by, for example, making it harder for other companies to compete in the market. To stay on the right side of the law, the school should regularly run tenders for its uniform supply. Commerce Commission guidelines state this should be at least every three years.

The school must be upfront about why it’s picked a preferred supplier and the benefits of the deal, as well as keeping parents informed of the process. The same applies if the school enters into an exclusive arrangement for stationery.

Can the school send my son home for wearing non-regulation shoes?

If your son continually refuses to wear his uniform properly, the school can warn him of the likely consequences. “Continual disobedience” can be punished through detention, stand-down, suspension or even exclusion or expulsion. A student can only be sent home if they are actually stood down or suspended.

My daughter wears a piece of jewellery that’s culturally important to our family but the school rules forbid jewellery. What’s the law?

Schools can set their own uniform rules but this right is not absolute. It’s subject to the general laws of New Zealand, one of which is the Human Rights Act.

The act forbids discrimination on the grounds of sex, religious or ethical belief, colour, race, ethnic or national origin, political belief, disability or age.

The Human Rights Commission, which administers the act, has previously upheld the rights of students to wear culturally important jewellery, regardless of whether jewellery is banned under the school's uniform rules.

My daughter had a ring put through her lip and the school won't let her return to class. Does this breach the Human Rights Act?

The act doesn’t prohibit discrimination simply on the grounds of appearance, so schools can decide that piercings – along with tattoos, various styles of clothing and dyed hair – are against the rules.

That said, the rules must be clear. The school should also consider whether its rules are likely to breach students' rights to freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights Act.

Privacy rights

A camera was stolen in my son’s class, so the school searched every pupil. Is it allowed to do this?

No. A search shouldn’t be made of an entire school, or class, just because one student may be guilty of wrongdoing.

Are teachers allowed to search students at all?

Teachers are only allowed to carry out a search if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting the student is in possession of something that may cause harm.

Teachers can’t physically touch the student or use force when they conduct a search. They can only require the student to surrender their bag or ask them to remove outer clothing, such as a coat or hat.

My daughter’s locker was searched by a teacher. Was this legal?

The school can’t search lockers randomly. A locker can be searched if there are reasonable grounds to believe it contains something harmful or dangerous.

The school has installed video surveillance cameras. My kids feel their privacy has been invaded. Are these cameras allowed?

Some schools use cameras to help identify students involved in serious breaches of school rules, such as assault, theft and vandalism.

Guidelines issued by the Privacy Commissioner state organisations using cameras must be clear about why they’re needed, only place them in specified areas and make sure they don’t unreasonably intrude on privacy. There should also be signage notifying people the cameras are operating.

Students are covered by the Privacy Act and have the same right to privacy as anyone else. Your kids can complain to the Privacy Commissioner if they think their privacy has been breached.

Breaking the rules

Should parents be contacted before the school sends a student home?

Students are required to attend school. This means if a child has to go home from school for any reason, the school should ensure the child's caregivers or parents are advised so that supervision can be arranged.

What does being “stood down” from school mean?

A student can be stood down for “continual disobedience” or “gross misconduct”, either of which must be harmful or dangerous to themselves or others, or set a harmful or dangerous example to others.

“Gross misconduct” is an intentional and serious breach of school rules. Examples might include bullying, smoking, using drugs or alcohol at school, or abusing a teacher.

The principal or parents can call a meeting to discuss the circumstances surrounding a stand-down. This will provide an opportunity to assess problems with a student's behaviour and how to prevent them recurring.

A student who’s stood down will be prevented from attending school for a fixed number of days but no more than five per term, or 10 over the year.

Does suspension still exist?

Suspension still exists; it’s the formal removal of a student from school. If a student is suspended, their case is considered by the board of trustees at a formal suspension meeting. It could decide to lift the suspension (with or without conditions), extend it (with conditions that help the student get back to school), or exclude or expel the student altogether.

What's the difference between exclusion and expulsion?

Exclusion is where a student under 16 years of age has behaved so badly they’re removed from school and have to enrol in a new school. Expulsion is the same thing for students aged 16 and over. The difference is that they don't have to enrol in another school.

A girl in my son's class was sent home because she was unwashed. Is this even legal?

Yes. Under the Education Act, a student can be sent home from school if they have a communicable disease (in which case, they may need a medical certificate before they can return) or if they are not clean enough.

Complaints

What happens if I complain about a teacher?

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

Minor matters will usually be dealt with by the principal. The teacher may undergo supervision or retraining.

If it’s serious, the school board will interview the teacher and let them put across their side of the story.

The circumstances of each case determines the course of action. The board can dismiss the complaint, censure the teacher, impose additional training or dismiss the teacher. If there’s a suggestion of criminal behaviour, the matter may be handed to the police.

Our advice when making a complaint

If you think there’s a problem, here’s our advice:

  • Before you contact the school, form a clear idea of what the problem is and what you think should happen.

  • If an event concerns you, make notes – even if you don't intend to lay a complaint. You may change your mind and it’s useful to have a record of what happened.

  • Make your complaint as soon as possible after the event. If there’s a delay, explain why it happened – for example, you may have only just found out about it or your child may have been frightened of the repercussions.

  • 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 can’t (or shouldn’t) be dealt with informally, you’ll need to put your complaint in writing to the principal. If your complaint is about the principal, it should be in writing to the chair of the board of trustees.

  • If you’re not satisfied with the outcome, or there’s a valid reason not to go to the school in the first instance, take your complaint directly to the Teaching Council. It’s responsible for dealing with complaints about competence and conduct.

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