A Hastings primary school is bringing in self-defence tutors for its older girls because the girls are afraid of being sexually abused by older men.

Kimi Ora Community School in Flaxmere, a small decile 1 school of 130 students, is at the sharp end of a nationwide child abuse problem with New Zealand's rate of child deaths from assault still the fourth-highest in the developed world.

Principal Matt O'Dowda says he has notified Child, Youth and Family of only one case of physical child abuse this year, and none of sexual abuse - but he says the older girls in years 6 to 8 (aged 10 to 12) are worried.

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"We have just done a pubertal change unit with the senior girls. Their major concern was how do you protect yourself from men, because they know there are parties and there are lots of people around," he said.

"So we have now got a two-day self-defence programme coming in this term just for Year 6 to 8 girls."

Sexual abuse of girls is surprisingly common in New Zealand. Thirty per cent of girls born in Dunedin in 1972-73 said they experienced some kind of sexual abuse before age 16, including 11 per cent who had unwanted sexual intercourse.

Twenty per cent of female NZ high school students in 2012 said they had "been touched in a sexual way or made to do unwanted sexual things".

A Herald investigation of the root causes of child abuse, starting today, finds that schools are more afraid of parents neglecting their children because of drugs and alcohol than they are of direct physical abuse.

"It's not the black eyes, it's more children that have had a lack of sleep because there's been a party going on at home," said Flaxmere Primary School principal Robyn Isaacson.

Flaxmere doctor Sandra Jessop said mothers often became depressed when their daughters reached puberty because they remembered what happened to them at the same age.

Abuse is often intergenerational. An expert panel on Child, Youth and Family (CYF) found that 53 per cent of parents who were known to CYF from their childhoods were reported to CYF for suspected poor care of their own children before their children turned 5, compared with 15 per cent of parents who were not known to CYF from childhood.

Treasury analysis classes 14.5 per cent of children under 5 as "at risk" of poor outcomes later in life based on having at least two of four indicators: a CYF finding of abuse or neglect; being mostly supported by benefits since birth; having a parent with a criminal record; and having a mother with no qualifications.

CYF has made formal findings that 8 per cent of all Kiwi preschoolers, or about one in every 12, have been abused or neglected.

That rises to one in five (21 per cent) of children born to single mums, and one in four (25 per cent) of children whose parent or parents were on welfare at the time of the birth.

On the other hand, only 4 per cent of children born to couples, and 4 per cent of children whose parents were working at the time of the birth, were found to have been abused or neglected in their first five years.

Geographically, rates of preschool children "at risk" are highest in areas of high sole-parenthood and unemployment, ranging from just 2 per cent in Queenstown-Lakes to 47 per cent in Kawerau.

Rates in smaller census area units range from zero in many well-off areas to 68 per cent in the low-income Whangarei suburb of Otangarei.

The Herald series investigates the root causes of child abuse in a rural town, Kaikohe (where 55 per cent of preschoolers are classed as "at risk"), Flaxmere in the regional city of Hastings (39 per cent), and Manurewa in Auckland (26 per cent).