Associate Professor Alison Kearney, Massey University
As part of their disciplinary processes, schools within New Zealand are able to utilise a process called stand-down. A stand-down is the formal removal of a student from school for a specified period – this period being up to five days, for a maximum of ten days per school year. Students can be stood down for reasons of gross misconduct or for continual disobedience that is a dangerous or harmful example to other students at the school. Students can also be stood down if their behaviour is likely to cause serious harm to themselves or to other students if they remain at school.
Our recent research
Our research focused on the experiences of students who had been stood down from school. We examined the process of school stand-down, and students’ experiences of it, through the lens of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), an international human rights treaty that sets out the rights of children and the obligations of governments to ensure these rights are provided, protected and advanced. New Zealand signed this convention in 1989.
We spoke to two students who had recently been stood down. One student (Destiny) had recorded a number of behavioural incidents, predominantly for lateness and non-attendance. The stand-down that she received was listed as ‘continual disobedience’ following a reprimand for truancy. The other student (Tyson) was stood down for the use of synthetic cannabis.
Stand downs and children’s rights
Of particular interest to us in relation to school stand-downs were four articles in the Convention:
- Article 2: The rights set out in the convention should be applied to all children without discrimination on any grounds including race, colour, sex language, religion ethnic or social original disability and so forth.
- Article 3: In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration.
- Article 12: Children have the right to express their views freely on matters that affect them and their views need to be given due weight. In judicial and administrative proceedings, children need to be provided with the opportunity to be heard and their views need to be given due weight.
- Article 28: All children have the right to access education.
Our findings indicated that the practice of school stand-downs contradicts many of the principles and standards of the UNCROC, a convention that is legally binding to member states (including New Zealand). In particular, school stand-down may contravene children’s rights:
- to education;
- to have decisions made about them that are in their best interests;
- to express their views and have these views given due consideration; and
- to non-discrimination.
School stand-downs are, therefore, also in contradiction to the notion of inclusive education – that is, school systems that are fair, equitable and accessible to all students.
Two students’ experiences
In relation to Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the use of stand-down was not in the best interests of Destiny and Tyson. It allowed Tyson to continue to smoke synthetic cannabis at home, and it fractured the relationship between Destiny and her family who were very angry with her for being stood-down.
In relation to Article 28 of the Convention, the process of school stand-down compromised Destiny and Tyson’s right to education – they were not permitted to be at school and thus could not access education.
Article 2 of the Convention outlines the importance of non-discrimination in relation to children accessing their rights. This means that all children are of equal worth, and should have equal opportunities regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity ability or socio-economic status. When we examined the New Zealand stand-down statistics we saw that certain groups were over-represented:
- Students from lower decile (deciles one and two) schools are nearly five times more likely to be stood-down as those from higher decile (deciles nine and ten) schools.
- Māori students are stood-down 2.4 times more than European/Pakeha students and 1.5 times more than Pasifika students.
- Males are 2.7 times more likely to be stood down than females.
The question of discrimination against these groups of students needs to be seriously considered. The notion of indirect discrimination is important here. Indirect discrimination occurs in the exclusion process if the process has a disproportionate adverse or unfavourable effect on a particular group.
In relation to Article 12 of the UN Convention, children have the right to express their views freely on matters that affect them and their views need to be given due weight. There is no doubt that the action of standing down a child from school is a matter that affects children. Ministry of Education guidelines state that the school principal must involve the student by putting the facts as they understand them to the student and recording their response. They must only hold a stand-down meeting with the student or parent if either asks for it. Arguably this could be considered a inappropriate response to obligations under Article 12. For children to have a voice, they need to understand the process including the rules of that process and possess the language to express themselves. As children are unlikely to have access to such things, it is unlikely that they will have a voice in these matters. A system of advocacy would appear highly appropriate here; however, New Zealand has no official system of advocacy nor any system of right of appeal or challenge for children who have been stood down.
Given New Zealand’s legal obligation to the UNCROC, and the Ministry of Education’s commitment to inclusive education, it would appear timely to reassess the use of school stand-downs in New Zealand schools and to consider other means of behaviour management that comply with the rights of children and are in line with the aims of inclusive education. Key focuses of such alternative approaches would include:
- School culture (see here, here, and here);
- The development of relationships between students, teachers, whānau and community;
- Considering each student with individual needs rather than enforcing blanket consequences for certain behaviours;
- Restorative practices (see here and here); and
- Systems to ensure that students have a voice and that their voice is heard and acted upon (see also here and here).
Governments need to take the lead here, particularly in ensuring that legislation and policy in school discipline matters conform to the provisions and protocols in the UNCROC. This is critical for two reasons: First, because human rights are inherently a Government obligation; and second, because legislation and policy guide and drive practice.
Alison Kearney is an Associate Professor at Massey University and the co-director of the Centre for Equity through Education. Her research focuses on issues associated with equity in education, particularly the reasons why some students are excluded and marginalised from and within school. She the editor of the New Zealand education journal Kairaranga and a member of the editorial panel of the International Journal of Inclusive Education.