This report presents the findings of an evaluation of schools’ approaches to ensuring student safety when recruiting and managing staff. The evaluation was undertaken in response to a request by the State Services Commission and the Ministry of Education (Ministry) after recent inquiries into the employment of sex offenders in New Zealand schools.

ERO gathered data for this evaluation in Term 1, 2013. Information was gathered from online surveys completed by principals and boards of trustees’ chairpersons, investigations during scheduled education reviews of 173 schools with Years 1 to 8 students, and focused reviews on recruiting and managing staff in 27 schools with Years 9 to 13 students.

Key findings

This report affirms the findings from recent reports and investigations into the employment of sex offenders in schools. The Ministerial Inquiry into the Employment of a Convicted Sex Offender in the Education Sector[1] (Ministerial Inquiry) and the Report to the Commissioner of Pamapuria School on Review of the Employment and Offences of James Parker[2] (Parker Report) identified how important it is for schools to design, manage and administer employment practices to provide the utmost protection for students in their school and wider community.

ERO’s evaluation found that two-thirds of schools had robust practices to ensure student safety when appointing and managing staff. In the schools with very robust practices they:

  • proactively developed a coherent and connected focus on student safety across all procedures, with policies containing enough detail to guide actions
  • were vigilant so practices followed policies and procedures and were reviewed in a timely and reflective manner
  • robustly checked potential employees’ backgrounds, experience, qualifications and identities
  • consistently accessed and used the resources that were available to guide decisions about employing and managing staff.

Schools that ERO has judged to be high performing in other aspects[3] were more likely to have made student safety paramount and have robust procedures and practices to support this.

One-third of the schools reviewed had practices that meant they were unlikely to recognise situations when students are at risk from some staff and respond appropriately. In these schools little attention had been paid to the recent lessons learnt in other communities in New Zealand. Boards and leaders need to acknowledge that unless they develop, manage and administer more robust employment systems, students in their school or community could be harmed in the future.

Ensuring student safety

Trustees, leaders and teachers in all the schools reviewed agreed that student safety is paramount. Most schools had broad policies and procedures about student safety, provided age‑appropriate health education programmes, consulted with parents about the health curriculum and attested teachers’ suitability for registration. Boards were generally knowledgeable and experienced about employment matters and sought advice when necessary.

These aspects are essential but not sufficient on their own for ensuring student safety. Some schools still need to increase their commitment to students’ safety when employing and managing staff.

While undertaking this review ERO became aware of concerns about misconduct where teachers were dismissed and the New Zealand Teachers Council (Teachers Council) was not informed. Schools, and those advising them, need to put the safety of students first by ensuring they meticulously comply with legislation.

ERO’s findings highlight the need for urgent action across the school sector and within education agencies to improve practices found in one-third of schools. Education agencies need to provide a coherent professional foundation (including regulation and advice) that actively supports schools to focus on student safety as part of their employment practices.

This report should be considered alongside the Ministerial Inquiry’s 35 recommendations[4] to understand the depth and breadth of change required by education agencies and many schools to ensure students are safe at school. The Vulnerable Children’s Bill suggestion of changes to vetting and screening[5] is in response to the same reports that were the impetus for this review.