Schools with persistent student underachievement will face a broader range of action from officials, including possible closure, under a proposed revamp of education law.
Education Minister Hekia Parata also wants to reward high-performing schools with much more flexibility in how they plan, and more discretion in the use of funding.
Short of putting in a commissioner or statutory manager, there were limits on what could be done with "floundering" schools, Ms Parata said - particularly if a board or principal was not keen to co-operate.
"Schools that are struggling the most often are the least willing to be helped. They get quite defensive ... Unless you strike a principal who has a relationship with the ministry, it is quite hard to go into a school. And a board can tell you to naff off because they are in charge of the school."
Under wide-ranging proposals for an overhaul of the Education Act 1989, released today in a discussion document, the Ministry of Education could be given power to step in earlier - a "graduated response" that could avoid a more radical intervention later.
Options could include an improvement notice, an audit, or, more seriously, a board could be asked to appoint different members.
Tough action should not be avoided in some cases, the Education Minister told the Herald.
The discussion document proposes putting a set of guiding principles for changing school arrangements in the law, possibly including the needs of learners.
"There are some schools in the country that have had persistent underachievement, but under the act, that's not actually a reason for closing a school. But I would like it to become one.
"I am not set on closing schools, but you just cannot have schools that can function, but their kids aren't learning anything.
"This is a move away from the administratively dense focus of the 1989 act, to a kid-centred focus on learning. That is the key change."
The Education Act 1989 introduced Tomorrow's Schools and gave a great deal of autonomy to each school board.
That helped create competition between local schools, something the Government's recent $359 million programme to establish "communities" of schools has tried to lessen.
Under the proposed Education Act changes, principals could be able to head multiple schools. Currently they can cover two schools only if they are run by the same board.
"Under Tomorrow's Schools every school is, as Simon and Garfunkel have sung, 'I am a rock, I am an island'. We need to be more of an archipelago," Ms Parata said.
The Education Act changes will include a statement on the vision for New Zealand's education system and its goals - which Ms Parata said currently existed in other documents - as well as a process to clearly state the priorities of the Government of the day.
"That part might raise some residual [feeling] around national standards, because the priorities will be around making sure kids can read, write and do maths ... for those who think that national standards is narrowing the curriculum, maybe they won't be happy with that. But parents are, and all the research is."
Feedback on the discussion document begins today and runs until December 14.
Proposal to regulate new-entrant starts
Schools could choose to have new entrants start in groups at set times of the year as part of the overhaul of the Education Act.
New Zealand's system of allowing children to start on their 5th birthday, and requiring consistent attendance only from the age of 6, has been abandoned by other countries, Education Minister Hekia Parata said.
"What I am proposing is to give boards the choice - there is no compulsion whatsoever - to start cohort entry.
"For instance, if your child's birthday is in July, the school could say those children must start school no later than the first day of term 3, because July happens in term 3. And then they will continue consistently after that."
Such a change has been recommended by an advisory group, and Ms Parata said it would address the problem of children starting school aged 5 and then attending sporadically until their next birthday.
That was a particular issue with at-risk children, but the cohort system had benefits for all children.
"What new-entrant teachers are saying, and so are early-childhood teachers, is that an early and familiar and consistent transition creates a better platform for learning," Ms Parata said.
Parents would not be made to enrol their child until the age of 6, as is presently the case. Feedback on the proposal will begin today and run until December 14.