An investigation by two parents has uncovered what they describe as "a systemic nationwide failure" to ensure that children are safe under the Vulnerable Children Act.
Parents Rachel and Regan Cunliffe discovered that their local school, Helensville Primary School, did not have a formal child protection policy after the school allowed another parent to go on a school camp in May this year even though the Cunliffe's son, who was also due to go to the camp, was afraid of him.
They have now researched the websites of all schools in the country, and applied under the Official Information Act for the child protection policies of all schools that did not have such policies on their websites.
They have found that 73 per cent of the country's 2545 schools have child protection policies as required under the Vulnerable Children Act 2014.
But 84 schools (3 per cent) have confirmed that they do not have such policies, and a further 599 schools (24 per cent) either refused to answer or did not respond.
The Cunliffes also checked reports by the Education Review Office (ERO) on 108 schools that did not have child protection policies by May this year, but were reviewed by ERO since July 2016, and found that ERO failed to note the absence of a child protection policy in almost all (102) of those schools.
ERO's standard procedure required school boards of trustees to affirm that they were meeting all their legal obligations, including the requirement to have child protection policies.
But the Cunliffes' research found that many schools did not, in fact, have such policies.
"This research has uncovered a systemic nationwide failure involving school boards, principals, NZ School Trustees Association, ERO and the Ministry of Education in relation to the Vulnerable Children Act 2014," they concluded.
"The key question that we have is, can we trust ERO?" Regan Cunliffe said.
"This is the auditor that goes into every school and which seeks to make sure that every school is doing everything they are supposed to be doing. All it is is 50 pages of tick-boxes.
"Am I compliant? Tick yes. ERO says yes. It's really not good enough."
Child protection policies must, at a bare minimum, contain provisions about identifying and reporting suspected child abuse and neglect.
The Cunliffes found that schools' actual policies range from "a few lines" up to a 108-page document produced by Cosgrove School in Papakura.
"The problem with a number of schools is that their policies are so scant in detail," Regan Cunliffe said.
"They do the bare minimum, and when the rubber hits the road and they are presented with a crisis, they have no idea how to deal with it."
Schools are required by law to publish their child protection policies on their websites or make them available at the school on request. But the survey found that only 30 per cent of schools that have a website have their child protection policies on it.
However, School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said most boards "don't tend to have specific policies for specific things".
"Rather, they would have one policy under Health & Safety including wellbeing that would include the [Vulnerable Children] Act and the wellbeing of every child," she said.
ERO chief executive Nicholas Pole said it was his expectation that the safety of children would be at the forefront of every ERO school review.
He said every school review asked for:
• Regular attestation from a school's board that they have appropriate policies in place.
• Seeing those policies as a part of the review process.
• A quality assurance process to validate that this has occurred.
"Where these requirements are not in place this is discussed with the board, their responsibilities are made clear. I would be extremely disappointed if that was not the case in every review," he said.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey said all schools had been required to have a child protection policy since July 2016.
"Having a Child Protection Policy [CPP] encourages early identification and referral of suspected child abuse or neglect. They also help build a strong culture of child protection in a school or kura," she said.
"Key requirements of a child protection policy:
• It needs to be written down and in use.
• Say how suspected neglect and abuse will be identified and reported.
• Be reviewed every 3 years.
• Available on school websites or on request.
"If a school does not have a CPP, we support them to develop one by providing guidelines."