Otago schools advised on pupil safety

Half the Otago schools reviewed by the Education Review Office in a nationwide investigation last year were found to be inadequately prepared to protect pupils from sex offenders teaching in their classrooms.

The schools were part of a nationwide sample evaluated by ERO at the request of the State Services Commission and the Ministry of Education, following two recent inquiries into the employment of sex offenders at schools.

ERO refused to say how many Otago schools were included in the sample, but confirmed some schools from the region were involved in the evaluation.

A report on the evaluation, titled Student Safety in Schools - Recruiting and Managing Staff, found one in three New Zealand schools did not have satisfactory practices for appointing and managing staff which were designed to keep pupils safe. It meant they were unlikely to recognise situations when pupils could be at risk.

An ERO spokeswoman said its staff discussed the gap in practices with the Otago schools identified as being under-prepared, and advised them on how to strengthen their employment practices.

ERO evaluation services manager Stephanie Greaney said school boards and leaders had a key role to play in pupils' safety.

''Our findings highlight that although all trustees and school leaders agreed that student safety is paramount, some schools need to increase their commitment to students' safety when employing and managing staff.

''In addition, education agencies need to actively support schools by making sure advice and regulation ... about what is required is easy for school trustees to find and understand.''

Mrs Greaney said ERO had made recommendations for schools and education agencies in the report, and included questions which boards could use to review and improve their own employment practices.

Information for the report had been gathered from online surveys completed by principals and boards of trustees chairmen, from scheduled reviews of 173 schools with primary-age pupils, and from focused reviews of 27 secondary schools.

Ministry of Education sector enablement and support head Katrina Casey said pupil safety was a top priority for the ministry, and concern was shared by schools, their boards of trustees and the New Zealand School Trustees Association.

''We are looking closely at this week's report by ERO into student safety, and are taking some additional action in light of it.

''Now that ERO has released the report, we are writing to all schools, clarifying guidance on their procedures for recruiting and managing staff and offering ... support.''

Ms Casey said a lot of work had been done since ERO carried out the survey a year ago, and there was also action on all the recommendations contained in the `Person A' Inquiry Report in 2012.

''The powers of the body that registers and undertakes vetting procedures have been strengthened, and there is a new code of conduct for the education profession and automatic referral of serious misconduct to its disciplinary tribunal.

''Teachers receive advice on what makes a child vulnerable and how they can be helped, as part of their initial training.''

A Bill is before Parliament to create a consistent approach to vetting and screening.

- john.lewis@odt.co.nz

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