Student Rights

Free legal help for students, parents & caregivers

The New Zealand Curriculum

Who decides what’s taught in schools?

There are three levels in the curriculum (the subjects studied at schools).

  1. The national curriculum (called The New Zealand Curriculum)
  2. The school curriculum
  3. The classroom curriculum

The New Zealand Curriculum sets the general framework for what is studied in all state and state-integrated schools. It sets out principles, values, key competencies and learning areas.

The board of trustees of every state and state-integrated school must develop and implement a curriculum that’s based on the principles and values in the New Zealand Curriculum and helps students develop the key competencies. However, schools have a lot of flexibility to decide how to shape their own curriculum to fit the needs of their own community.

In the classroom, teachers decide how to tailor the national and school curricula to their individual students.

For example, some of the New Zealand Curriculum values are community and participation, ecological sustainability, integrity and respect. In line with these values and those of their community, a school might make the environment a focus of their curriculum. An individual class may then choose to study native plants and animals.

To give another example, one of the values in the New Zealand Curriculum is “excellence, by aiming high and persevering in the face of difficulties.” Renwick School recognises this at the school level through a “Give it a go kid” award, and at the classroom level through “personal best” tables.

Are there compulsory subjects that my school must teach?

Yes. The New Zealand Curriculum sets out seven learning areas that are compulsory for students in years 1 to 10:

  • English
  • The arts (dance, drama, music/sound arts, visual arts)
  • Health and physical education
  • Mathematics and statistics
  • Science
  • Social sciences
  • Technology.

All schools with students in years 7 to 10 should also work towards offering their students the opportunity to learn second languages.

Does my school have to offer swimming?

Yes. Swimming is part of the New Zealand Curriculum and it is expected that all students will have had opportunities to learn basic aquatic skills by the end of year 6.

The Ministry of Education doesn’t fully fund school pools, but they do provide operational funding which can be used either to run and maintain a school swimming pool or for travel and entry to a public swimming pool. Schools may also want to explore the possibility of using another local school’s pool.

I think a teacher taught something inappropriate. What can I do?

If a teacher taught material that you think was inappropriate for your child’s age, it would be best to begin by talking to the teacher about your concerns. If you still have issues, you can than follow the school’s general complaints procedure (see “Fixing problems and making complaints”).

see “Can I take my complaint any further?”

In some cases, inappropriate comments (for example, a teacher discussing their own genitals) may be more serious. If it adversely affects the well-being or learning of students or reflects badly on their fitness to be a teacher, it could amount to serious misconduct.

Exemption rules

Can I be released from a curriculum class on religious or cultural grounds?

Education Act 1989, s 25A

Your parents can ask the principal to release you from a particular class or subject on religious or cultural grounds, or you can ask yourself if you’re 16 or older. The principal can only release you if they’re satisfied you have sincerely held religious or cultural views and that you’ll be adequately supervised while you’re out of class, either at school or outside. This right doesn’t apply to integrated schools (see “Integrated (formerly private) schools”).

The request has to be in writing, and be made at least 24 hours before the relevant class. If it’s your parents who ask, the principal must find out what you think about this.

Education Act 1964, s 79

Sex education

Can schools teach about sex?

Education Act 1989, s 60B

Sexuality education is a key learning area of health and physical education curriculum, and must be taught at all state and integrated schools, at both primary and secondary levels. Schools must consult with the community when they’re developing their health and sexuality programmes.

A parent can require the school to exclude their child from sexuality education. The principal must arrange this and make sure that the child is supervised during this time.

However, the principal can’t also be expected to ensure the student is excluded at any other time just in case another student asks the teacher about part of the sexuality education curriculum.

Religious instruction

What is the difference between religious observance, instruction and education?

Religious observance involves things like reciting prayers and singing the hymns of a particular faith.

Religious instruction involves teaching about a faith. It is not neutral; it assumes belief in that faith.

Religious education (religious studies) is teaching about religion as part of a broader context. It should be neutral, and not favour any particular religious belief.

Any school is free to teach religious education – facts about religions and the role of religion in society. This is compatible with secular education. The curriculum must be inclusive and reflect our cultural identity – no particular belief should be supported.

State primary schools

Education Act 1989, ss 77 – 79

State primary schools must be secular during the hours a school is open for instruction.

However, they can provide religious instruction and observance under certain conditions:

  • The school must be closed for instruction, and
  • It must be voluntary.

It is only voluntary if students can opt out freely. Students shouldn’t be coerced into participating, and they must be supervised if they do not attend.

When is a school closed for instruction?

A school is “open for instruction” when an educational activity is taking place for students, like normal class activities. Schools are considered closed at lunchtime.

Schools can close for instruction for up to one hour per week for a maximum of 20 hours per year to allow religious instruction or observance. This is considered to be consistent with providing secular education, as it is outside normal teaching hours.

A board can close the whole school or just a part, like a single class room.

State secondary schools

Education Act 1989, s 72
New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990

Teaching at state secondary schools does not have to be secular. Boards of trustees have broad discretion to control and manage their school, including religious instruction.

However, if a school chooses to teach religious instruction, it must comply with New Zealand’s Bill of Rights. It cannot be discriminatory and students must be able to opt out.

Integrated or private schools

Integrated and private schools don’t have to provide a secular education. Many integrated schools have a special character based on religious belief. They can have religious instruction and observance without closing the school.

In private schools, religious teaching depends on the parents’ contractual agreements with the school.

If an integrated or private school chooses to provide religious instruction or observance, parents must be able to withdraw their children freely.

Can my child’s school have prayers or karakia at assembly?

Although teaching in state primary schools must be secular, religious observance can be carried out when the school is closed for instruction. Depending on the circumstances, a school might be considered closed during an assembly.

It is lawful as long as the school is closed for instruction, it doesn’t go beyond the time constraints, and students can opt out.

Students who opt out shouldn’t be discriminated against. Discrimination occurs when:

  • a student is treated differently because of their belief
  • they are disadvantaged, and
  • the school’s actions can’t be justified under the Bill of Rights.

What should I do if I have a problem?

If the issue is in the classroom, you should first speak to your child’s teacher. If it can’t be resolved, you can then raise your concerns with the principal. If necessary, the next step is to write to the board of trustees, which makes the school rules. Finally, if a complaint can’t be resolved within the school, you can complain to the Human Rights Commission.

Te Reo Māori in schools

Can I speak te reo Māori in the classroom?

Te Ture mō te Reo Māori/the Māori Language Act, ss 4, 5A and 6A

Te reo Māori is one of the official languages of New Zealand, and is protected as a taonga by Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi). The New Zealand government has committed to work in partnership with Māori to promote the language for future generations.

United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, art 30
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art 27

The right to speak your own language is a human right recognised in international law.

ee “Punishments”

Human Rights Act 1993, s 57

Under the Human Rights Act, it’s unlawful to exclude a student or disadvantage them because of their race or ethnic origins. This means it’s probably illegal to punish students for speaking te reo, if it’s related to their ethnicity. It is difficult to think of a situation where punishing any student for speaking te reo could be reasonable.

Can I do my assessments in te reo Māori?

Assessment (including Examination) Rules for Schools with Consent to Assess 2015, 5.9

According to the rules of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), secondary students sitting NCEA external assessments can answer their exams in English and/or te reo Māori. For most subjects, translated examination booklets are also available.

If you wish to sit your external exams wholly or partly in te reo, you should let your school know so that they can make arrangements.

Must my school offer te reo Māori?

No, te reo is not a compulsory part of the New Zealand Curriculum, although it is taught at many schools.

Education Act 1989, s 61(3)

However, schools are required by their charters to:

  • Aim to develop school policies and practices reflecting New Zealand’s cultural diversity and the unique position of Māori culture
  • Aim to take all reasonable steps to teach tikanga Māori and te reo Māori to all full-time students whose parents ask for it

If you’d like your school to offer te reo Māori, it’s a good idea to talk to the principal and let them know. You can ask to see the school charter to see what steps they are taking towards these aims.

The Ministry of Education has developed curriculum guidelines to support teaching and learning te reo Māori in English-speaking schools. If you’re at secondary school, you may be able to take Māori by correspondence.

  • Te Reo Māori in English-Medium Schools:
  • Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu - The Correspondence School: