School students from a small, struggling town are stuck learning in "the worst classrooms in New Zealand" despite government officials calling for urgent action three years ago.

Buildings at Northland College in Kaikohe are so dilapidated the police have asked to use them for training simulations because they're the closest thing available to a "ghetto environment", principal Jim Luders says.

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"The conditions are appalling. They're unsafe. There's water leaks, mould, asbestos in parts. It's without doubt the worst school stock in New Zealand," Mr Luders said.

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"I would challenge any school to send in photos that are worse."

The buildings have long been an issue at the 280-student school, which has also had struggles with governance, attendance and achievement. Previous boards failed to maintain the classrooms - while at the same time funding a new administration block - leading to their run-down state.

Now under a commissioner, the school is trying to get new classrooms signed off by the Ministry of Education. The head of the ministry's Education Infrastructure Service, Kim Shannon, said it was working closely with the school and had provided $1.5 million for urgent works.

"It's important that we take the necessary time to ensure the best outcome for the school," she said.

"Extensive planning work is being undertaken to ensure that the school has buildings which are healthy and comfortable, and meet the students' needs."

In 2012 the Education Review Office (ERO) said the school's needs were "urgent".

At that time an ERO report labelled the buildings "inadequate", "unacceptable", "no longer safe", "poorly equipped" and "unventilated".

"The efforts of the school's leaders and staff are being undermined by the inadequacies of both the school's physical environment and resources for teaching and learning," it said.

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Since then, some buildings have been knocked down and some issues - such as dangerous asbestos - fixed temporarily with ministry support. However, an ERO report last month noted most of its 2012 concerns had not been addressed.

"This situation continues to adversely affect the wellbeing of staff and students," it said.

It noted that even if the plans were signed off soon, the classrooms would not be finished until at least 2017, leaving the students in substandard buildings for two more years.

Health experts have warned of the dangers of students studying in such conditions, with damp and mouldy buildings increasing the risk of coughing and wheezing in children.

Northland College principal Jim Luders
Northland College principal Jim Luders

Respiratory expert Professor Innes Asher said fungi or particles could end up circulating, causing inflammation of the lungs. "It's vital to have warm, dry conditions," she said.

Commissioner Chris Saunders said the school was in a dilemma because the state of the buildings was so bad there was no point spending money on a short-term fix.

"It's not a good work environment. It's not good for students or for staff," he said. "Everyone has been very patient, but it's getting harder and harder to make excuses.

"But nothing is going to happen by jumping up and down and carrying on. We just have to wait and see what the ministry decides."

A decision is expected soon. But Mr Luders is wary of being too hopeful - he thought a decision would be made soon after his arrival in 2013.

"It's not the ministry's fault. The school has got this way because of mismanagement. But that's not these kids' fault either," he said.

"We are trying to get them to have mana and hold their heads up and be leaders. And yet in buildings that are so run down ... it's difficult. There is a deep sense of frustration within the community."

Mr Luders said the process had been open and fair but was "just hopelessly slow".

"When you're living with it day-to-day it's tough ... I just feel if we were in Auckland it would be done faster."