Care of children

What should the school do when a parent who does not have day to day care requests information and items relating to the child?

When a parent who does not have day to day care requests information or items relating to a child a variety of considerations come into play. As a general rule parents should be treated the same regardless of who has more or all day to day care. In most circumstances there are no privacy concerns in sharing information with parents or other caregivers; however, there are cases where you may have concerns about the student’s privacy.

In such cases there needs to be a balancing between the child’s right to privacy, the parent’s rights to information and the likely outcome of any requests for official information.

You will find helpful information in the Privacy Commissioner’s Guidelines for Schools, in Schools and the right to discipline – Chapter 15 , and NZSTA’s Privacy Guide.

The starting point in a school situation is the guidance and counselling provisions of the Education Act 1989. These state that the principal of a school shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that a student's parents are told of matters that, in the principal's opinion:

  • are preventing or slowing the student's progress through the school, or
  • are harming the student's relationships with teachers or other students.

This means parents and/or guardians should be told when academic progress is unsatisfactory or when behaviour is compromising learning.

However, beyond those matters there is a question of students’ privacy. The Privacy Act 1993 sets out 12 privacy principles that control the collection and release of personal information. The school’s Privacy Officer should be familiar with these. State and state-integrated schools are subject to the Official Information Act 1982 which emphasises the principle of availability of information unless there is a good reason for withholding it.

Withholding information and materials in order to protect the student’s privacy is a legitimate reason for refusal. Such a decision can be reviewed by the Office of the Ombudsmen who can recommend release if there is sufficient public interest in releasing the information or no privacy issues. Note that the Ombudsmen tend to deal with questions on a case by case basis.

Two cases and decisions of the Ombudsmen are summarised below.

For advice relating to a specific situation you should consult the NZSTA advisory and support centre.

­Ombudsmen Case Notes  

These case notes set out the Ombudsman's view on specific cases. They record a view formed on the particular facts of each case and do not form any legal precedent.

Disciplinary proceedings: Ombudsman CASE NO. W45378 Anand Satyanand

To read the full details of this case visit the Office of the Ombudsman website and enter the reference number.

Request by non-custodial father for information relating to his son's suspension was refused by the school in order to protect son's privacy. Weighing s77 of the Education Act against s9 of the Official Information Act the Ombudsman found that the events giving rise to the student's suspension were sufficiently serious and detrimental to his progress at school that the requester ought to have been notified in terms of s77 of the Education Act. The view was formed that there was a public interest in terms of s 9(1) favouring the release of a summary of the events leading to the student's suspension. This outweighed the need to protect the student's privacy under s 9(2)(a) of the Act. It was considered that the release of a summary of the relevant events would satisfy the public interest considerations, while protecting the student's privacy interest in the complete school file.

Prize Giving results: Ombudsman CASE NO. W39955 Anand Satyanand

To read the full details of this case visit the Office of the Ombudsman website and enter the reference number.

This case involved a request by a non-custodial father of a secondary student for a written list of his child's achievements, as announced at the annual school prize-giving. He was not able to attend the ceremony because a protection order in respect of his wife and children had been taken out against him. The requester's child was adamant that the information at issue not be released because of the way in which the requester had previously used information which he had acquired about his children. It was claimed that this use had amounted to harassment and breach of privacy. The school Board of Trustees took cognisance of the student's strong views and withheld the information in reliance upon s9(2) of the Official Information Act on grounds of protecting privacy.

In respect of the question as to whether s 9(2)(a) applied, several factors were found to be relevant. The first was the nature of the information itself. It was significant that the information had not been collected or supplied by the student or by any family member. It had been generated by the school. Moreover, the purpose of its generation was to make the information public, as it would seem there would be little point in the prize-giving process without the school publishing the identities of prize-winners. This suggested that withholding the information would only delay the seemingly inevitable receipt of it by the requester and not assuage his child's key concerns. In light of these factors it was determined that it was not "necessary", pursuant to s 9(2)(a) of the Act, to withhold the information at issue to protect the privacy interests identified and therefore this section did not apply.

Updated: June 2017

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