Wellington, Sept 22 NZPA - Greater powers are needed to censure private schools which are not up to scratch, the Law Commission has recommended.
In a report issued today, Law Commissioner Sir Geoffrey Palmer said the 90-year-old legislation covering private schools was "past its use-by-date".
Private schools that do not meet standards could be deregistered, but lesser penalties were not available, the report said.
There were also gaps in what was required of private schools, with no restrictions on who could operate them, including people with lengthy criminal records, and schools were not obliged to look after students' welfare.
"This is obviously unsatisfactory in the 21st century," Sir Geoffrey said.
The report's recommendations aimed to make the legislation less ambiguous and provide more options for dealing with schools that do not meet standards or comply with the law.
Schools should be required to offer a "safe and supportive environment" where students' welfare was taken into account, and staff should be vetted to ensure they were "fit and proper" for employment.
The report recommended enforcement powers be increased to ensure schools complied with registration criteria and fulfilled their statutory duties.
The Government should also be able to step in when there were reasonable grounds to believe criminal activities were occurring, such as fraud or harm to children.
A number of new actions against non-compliant schools should be introduced, including prosecution, withdrawing some or all Government funding, and suspending a school's registration.
"It may seldom, or never, be necessary to use such powers, but they need to be there in case," Sir Geoffrey said.
The emphasis should be on assisting rather than penalising schools, he said.
"The purpose of this report is certainly not to make fundamental changes to the private school sector.
"For the great majority of schools it will be business as usual."
The private school sector in New Zealand was generally strong and many schools were "very good indeed", Sir Geoffrey said.
Associate Minister of Education Heather Roy welcomed the report, saying up-to-date legislation was needed .
"Private schools enjoy considerable freedom from Government regulation but, as they receive some public funding, the Government does set minimum expectations." Private schools served an important function, she said.
"They offer choice and competition in education."
Labour Party education spokesman Trevor Mallard said the report showed the law needed an overhaul.
"It is important that they [private schools] are guided by laws which ensure students who attend them have the same protections and rights as students in state schools."
Labour had previously criticised the Government for increasing private school funding.
New Zealand's 99 registered private schools last year had a combined roll of about 30,000 students.
The Government has six moths to decide whether it will act on the report's recommendations.