This article is focused on New Zealand law and explains issues from a Common law perspective.

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How to - Enrolment and attendance at NZ schools

The right to free education

Every person is entitled to free enrolment and free education at a state New Zealand school from his or her fifth birthday until 1 January in the year after he or she turns 19.

Between what ages is a child required to enrol in school?

Every child must be enrolled at a state school or registered private school at all times from his or her sixth birthday, until he or she turns 16. If the child is not enrolled, each parent can be fined.

However, six year olds do not have to be enrolled if they live more than three kilometres walking distance from school.

Exemptions from the requirement to enrol

Parents can in some cases apply to the Ministry of Education to exempt a student from the requirement to enrol:

  • 15 year olds: The Ministry can exempt a young person who has turned 15 if satisfied that it is sensible to do this on the basis of
    • the person's educational problems
    • the person's conduct, and
    • the benefit (if any) that the person is likely to get from available schools
  • Long-term exemptions: The Ministry can exempt a student from being enrolled if satisfied that he or she will be taught at least as regularly and as well as in a school or, if the student requires special education, as in a special education class or clinic or special service.

Requirement to attend school

Every student of a state school or registered private school who is required to be enrolled must attend the school whenever it is open.

A student is regarded as having attended school if the school is open for at least four hours on the day in question and the student has been there for at least four hours while the school is open.

A principal may allow a student to leave school early if:

  • the student has a good reason, and
  • the student has been at school for at least four hours on that day

With a parent's agreement, a principal may release a student from school to receive tuition elsewhere, if the principal is satisfied that the tuition is acceptable.

Release from tuition on religious or cultural grounds

Principals of state schools (not including integrated schools) may release students from tuition in any class or subject on religious or cultural grounds, if a parent requests this at least 24 hours before the start of the tuition. The principal must be satisfied that the parent has asked because of sincerely held religious or cultural views, and that the student will be adequately supervised.

Before making a decision, the principal must take reasonable steps to find out the student's views. The student is to be released unless it is inappropriate taking into account the student's age and maturity and his or her views on the matter. The student may be allowed to leave the school during the period of tuition.

Longer exemptions from the requirement to attend school

A school principal may exempt a student from attending school for up to five school days if satisfied that the absence is justified.

Parents can also apply to the Ministry of Education for it to exempt a student from attending school for longer periods:

  • Distance from school: The Ministry can exempt a student for up to one year if the walking distance from the student's home to school is more than five kilometres or (when the student is under 10) more than three kilometres. The Ministry may require the parents to enrol the student at a correspondence school.
  • Other reasons: The Ministry can also exempt a student for up to seven school days for any other good reason.

If the Ministry refuses to exempt the student, the parents may appeal to the Secretary of Education.


If a student does not attend school when required, each parent can be fined $15 for each day the child does not attend school.

School boards must take all reasonable steps to ensure that their students attend school. They may employ attendance officers to enforce the attendance rules.

What powers do attendance officers have?

An attendance officer may detain any child who appears to have be five or over but under 15 and who is not at school. The officer must produce a distinctive badge or some other evidence of being an attendance officer.

The officer may ask the child to give:

  • name and address
  • the school at which he or she is enrolled and its address
  • the reason for being absent from school

If the officer isn't satisfied that the child has a good reason for not being at school, the officer may take the child home or to the school, and must report the matter to the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services.

These powers can also be exercised by any Police officer.

Enrolment schemes: Can schools restrict who can enrol?

A school can adopt an enrolment scheme that restricts who can enrol at the school, if this is necessary to prevent overcrowding at the school. The school must get approval for the scheme from the Ministry of Education.

But all students have a right to attend their local school, and an enrolment scheme cannot take away this right. An enrolment scheme must specify a "home zone" for the school, and all students who live within this home zone have an absolute right to attend the school.

Students who live outside the home zone can attend the school if they are selected under the enrolment scheme according to the following order of priority set by the EDUCATION ACT 1989:

  1. students who are accepted for special programmes that the school runs (for example, special-needs programmes or Maori language immersion classes)
  2. brothers and sisters of existing students
  3. brothers and sisters of former students
  4. children of school staff
  5. all other students who apply to attend the school

If there aren't enough places available for all out-of-zone students who want to go to the school, the available places are allocated by ballot. So if, say, there are enough places for all students in categories 1 and 2, but not enough for all those in category 3, the remaining places are allocated to category 3 students by ballot. Those category 3 students who aren't selected under this ballot system, and all students in categories 4 and 5, cannot attend the school.

If a school has an enrolment school, it must keep copies of the scheme available at the school. The scheme will state where the home zone is and what the procedures are for selecting out-of-zone students under the rules explained above.

Discrimination by schools

The HUMAN RIGHTS ACT 1993 prohibits schools from doing any of the following things on the basis of any of the grounds of discrimination in the Act:

  • refusing or failing to admit a person as a student
  • admitting a student on less favourable terms or conditions than would otherwise be made available
  • denying or restricting access to any benefits or services that the school provides
  • excluding a person as a student or subjecting him or her to any other detriment

The prohibited grounds of discrimination are:

  • sex, marital status, religious belief, ethical belief, colour, race, and ethnic or national origins, and
  • from 1 December 2001, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status, and sexual orientation

However, some exceptions are permitted, including the following:

  • The anti-discrimination rules don't apply when the school is, wholly or mainly, for students of one sex, race, or religious belief, or for students of a particular age group or with a particular disability.
  • Courses or counselling dealing with highly personal matters may be restricted to people of a particular sex, race, ethnic or national origin, or sexual orientation.
  • A school may refuse admission to a student with a disability if
    • the school cannot reasonably provide the special services or facilities that the student needs, or
    • the disability (for example, an infection) would create a risk of harm to the student or to others (but the exception doesn't apply if reasonable measures could be taken to reduce the risk to a normal level)

For how to make a complaint, see How to complain about discrimination to the Human Rights Commission.

Cautionary notes
  • Note that parents may be fined if their child is not enrolled or attending school when required to do so.

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