A primary school has sent a mass text message to parents asking if they'd prefer their child not to sing the national anthem at assembly due to "cultural or religious reasons".

The principal of Whanganui's Carlton Primary, Gaye O'Connor, confirmed teachers had been asked to send out the inquiry to parents of their 246 pupils this week.

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One version of the text message sent to parents passed on to the Herald from an unhappy grandparent of a Carlton pupil went: "Hi Can you please let me know if you do not want your child to sing the national anthem at assembly due to cultural or religious reasons Thanks - Carlton" [sic]

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The grandparent claimed the message showed a lack of respect for New Zealand ancestry, the Whanganui community and the country broadly.

They also claimed several other school parents were disgruntled with the text.

However, O'Connor said the reason for the text was teachers had noticed a significant number of children not singing the New Zealand national anthem, in English and Te Reo, after their weekly school assembly.

"It was standing looking out at the assembly, the mass of children standing there, and realising when you looked along the lines of children - jeez, there's quite a lot of kids not singing," O'Connor said.

"Is that because they can't be bothered singing today? Is it because they don't know it anymore and we need to re-teach it again?

"But before we decided to re-teach it I said to the staff you'd better find out first if there are any students who for religious or cultural reasons don't sing. Like some people don't celebrate birthdays or Christmas."

O'Connor said they didn't want to "accost children directly at school" asking them the reasons for not singing the anthem.

"Teachers wouldn't have to say 'come on sing it'. Because you don't want to embarrass the children in front of their peers."

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Carlton Primary School principal Gaye O'Connor holds an assembly at the school. Photo / Supplied
Carlton Primary School principal Gaye O'Connor holds an assembly at the school. Photo / Supplied

O'Connor said they had not contacted the Ministry of Education before sending the texts, and it was no different to any other occasion when they ask parents if they wanted their child to take part in a school activity.

The text message was sent to parents on Wednesday, and a day later O'Connor said no parents had been in touch saying they didn't want their child singing the anthem for those specific reasons.

New Zealand Principals Federation president Perry Rush said they were not aware of Carlton Primary's text message to parents about the national anthem - or of any similar instances in schools across New Zealand.

"On face value it would be a real shame if we couldn't collectively as a country sing our own national anthem," Perry said.

"However, it is worth acknowledging every school has an expectation and a right to consult their community on matters that are important to that community.

"In this instance, if the school has felt it's important to go back and have a conversation with their parents to clarify matters, particularly any song that contains reference to god, parents have the right to indicate they do not wish their child to be participating in that.

"It would seem this school is paying due diligence to that expectation. The degree to which that is appropriate or not is highly that school's right to make that call."

Carlton Primary School principal Gaye O'Connor. Photo / Supplied
Carlton Primary School principal Gaye O'Connor. Photo / Supplied

O'Connor said the debate among teachers to send out the text was informed by debate around the cultural sensitivity of the first verse of the anthem - raised by Auckland woman Fiona Downes in a letter to the PM.

Downes suggested dropping the first verse of the anthem due its "arcane" language such as "triple star", "shafts of war" and "entreat" which are meaningless to migrants and Kiwis under 30.

The Prime Minister responded to Downes' letter saying the anthem's language was "certainly a product of its time".

"I agree with you [Downes], the wording of the second verse holds particular significance in the wake of the March 15 attacks," Jacinda Ardern wrote.

The anthem was first published in 1876.

The Ministry of Education's Katrina Casey, deputy secretary sector enablement and support, said the ministry expected schools to communicate very clearly with parents to ensure they were fully informed about board decisions.

"It's up to schools whether they sing the national anthem and, if so, how often. Schools are not required to inform us.

"If parents do not wish their children to sing the national anthem, they should ask the principal to exempt their children. If parents are not satisfied with the response from the principal, they can ask the board of trustees to reconsider the decision."

Casey said Carlton Primary School's principal had "demonstrated good practice in communicating with parents and giving them the option to make a decision that is right for their child".