Paula Bennett's drive to improve the safety of our children against sexual abuse raises some important questions about the vulnerability of pupils who will soon find themselves attending one of the new public/private partnership schools (better known as charter schools).
Will teachers in such schools (qualified or unqualified) be subject to the same scrutiny being proposed for state employees involved in the care of our children?
I recently put that question to our Minister for Social Development in an email, to which she replied: "Teachers in partnership schools will be expected to abide by the new screening and vetting standards and also child protect policy."
"Expected" or "compelled"? An interesting choice of words .
Ms Bennett also recently stated that under the proposed sex abuse legislation state teachers could be instantly sacked if they refused to take the compulsory child abuse screening test. What about teachers in charter schools, an unknown number of whom will be untrained?
Until the passing of the Education Amendment Act 2013 only trained and registered teachers were able to be in charge of a class. Among other things, the training and registering process weeds out people with unsafe attitudes towards children. It's not a perfect system as the James Parker case demonstrates, but where are the safeguards for children who will attend the new public/private schools? Will their teachers be "compelled" to take the test or only "expected" to take it?
And what assurance will the public have that the management of these schools will not cover up sex-abuse or any other crimes out of self -interest?
Section 158Y of the Education Information Act 2013 specifically excludes anyone from using the Official Information Act 1982 to seek information which could uncover such wrong doing. But why should charter schools be exempted in this way?
We have a right to know what is being done with the $19 million allocated to these schools, and we also have the right to know how the school is being managed and whether proper measures are in place to keep children safe from abuse.
As an investigative documentary maker I have used the Official Information Act many times to get answers otherwise impossible to obtain from a government department. But I will not be able to do this in the case of the new public/private partnership schools. That is not only unconstitutional, it's dangerous.
Imagine for example a parent comes to me with an allegation there has been sexual abuse at a charter school and the management have covered it up. And let's say the police have, for whatever reason, not pushed the complaint as far and as fast as the complainant deems necessary.
Section 158Y of the Education Amendment Act 2013 stands in the way of me doing a thorough investigation, because it doesn't allow me to use the Official Information Act to get access to all memos, files, board discussions and records of telephone calls from the school.
I don't want to read one day that a paedophile was able to operate at a charter school because the "expected" sex abuse screening wasn't considered compulsory and clause 158Y stopped people finding out the truth earlier because the school management was shielded from the glare of the Official Information Act. Let's fix it now.
Remove Section 158Y from the Education Amendment Act 2013. Better still, scrap the act and get rid of charter schools as well.
Bryan Bruce is a multi-award-winning documentary maker, journalist and author. He is best known as The Investigator (TVNZ) and for his work Inside Child Poverty.