Everybody in New Zealand is entitled to ask any government department for a copy of their records that the particular government departments holds, according to the Privacy Act. These records can be a valuable source of information for those seeking answers for their treatment while in state care. I would like to talk about the records which are held by schools and the Ministry of Education.
To understand what records exist for individuals, it is important to understand the rules that exist around these records. These rules are developed by a combination of Archives NZ staff, Ministry of Education staff and school staff. Other people with an interest are generally consulted (including, teachers unions, police, etc). The general public can then make submissions as well. These rules, called a Retention and Disposal Schedule remain in place for 10 years, after which they need to be reviewed. They list all the different types of records that are made, and tell you what needs to happen to them. Some will be required to be kept forever, some can be destroyed. The School Retention and Disposal Schedule is due for review and needs to be amended carefully to reflect the growing concerns re state care, abuse in schools etc.
There are 2 major different school / education records that exist for New Zealanders.
This is the file that is held by the school which the pupil attended. The file stays with the pupil and should move to each new school that the pupil attends. Once the pupil leaves the final school for the last time, the Board of Trustees of that school are currently allowed to destroy the entire file. It is not to be given to the pupil. This is all clearly outlined in the Schools Retention and Disposal Schedule which is a public document available on Archives NZ website. Although the Schedule is under review, an initiative by Archives NZ has resulted in a number of school records that have been identified as of value and the destruction requirement has been lifted to include that they can now be released to the community.
Special Education records.
If any pupil receives extra services from the Ministry of Education - for example assistance with behaviour, speech therapy, assisted transport, learning support etc, they will have had an individual file created for them, which will be held by the Ministry of Education, at their regional offices (generally in offsite storage). These files are required to be kept in total until the individual reaches the age of 21 - and then for another 10 years after that. After that, they can be destroyed, after full approvals have been obtained. So, any person who is born before 1988, could have had their Special Education file legally destroyed, in accordance with the Ministry of Education Retention and Disposal Schedule, again which is a public document available on Archives NZ website. These student records can be invaluable for any claims which are after 1989 and can provide much evidential information.
How do I get my records?
If the school is still open, the school should be approached first. However it is unlikely that any individual pupil files would have been kept, and the only details that may have been kept could be in the Admissions and Withdrawals register. If a complaint was made by the pupil while at school, details of this complaint may be recorded in the Board of Trustee minutes. Both these sets of documents are required to be kept and transferred eventually to Archives NZ where they will be kept forever. If the school has been shut, you should contact the Ministry of Education regional office in the area where the school was based. They should be able to tell you where the records of the shut school have gone - this will either be in the Ministry of Education offsite storage facility or have been transferred to Archives NZ.
Special Education files.
These will always be held by the Ministry of Education, no Special Education files are held by Archives NZ. Again, the regional office of the Ministry of Education is the first place to contact, they will be able to assist in locating the Special Education file, if it exists. No Special Education files prior to 1989 seem to be in existence.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
What sort of information should I provide when asking for my records?
You should provide your full name, including any other names that you were known by during your childhood, and your date of birth. You should also provide the names of the schools you attended, where known, and the region in which the school is/was based. Nationwide electronic enrolment records have only been available since about 2006 so the more information that can be provided, the better.
What if I attended a Special School or health camp?
Many of the Special Schools have now been shut and records are held by both the Ministry of Education and Archives NZ. It is very likely that a full pupil file will have been retained by these schools and will be held in offsite storage. If you attended one of these schools and you have concerns about your time there, it is probably best to make your request directly to the Ministry Historic Claims team. Their email is email@example.com. They should be able to assist you in the process.
Can other people help me?
Yes, other people can assist you in this process. You can nominate someone who will act on your behalf as long as you have signed a document nominating them and provided it with your request. This person could be a family member, counsellor, lawyer etc, and they should be able to assist you. It is important to remember that your records may be upsetting to read, and difficult to understand so it is good to have support.
Why are records redacted (other people’s names, faces and details blacked out)?
This is a requirement of the Privacy Act. A government department is required to provide your records when asked, but it is not allowed to release the personal details of anyone else. This, unfortunately, will include family members. The redaction should not include staff members.
What happens after I send my request in?
Once a Privacy Act request has been received, the government department needs to reply to the requestor within 20 working days, outlining which records exist and giving a time frame of release. Some files may be very large and can take a while to prepare for release. You are entitled to know this within the 20 days. If you have not heard back after 20 days, they are breaching the Privacy Act, and it is quite alright to contact them again and ask for an update.
Can I ask a number of government departments for my records?
Yes, you can. It should be noted that most people in state care will have a file at the Ministry of Social Development (or one of its predecessors - Social Welfare, CYFS etc) All the files for the previous organisations will be held by the Ministry of Social Development and they would be the first point of contact. I would highly recommend that any request to the Ministry of Education is accompanied by a request to the Ministry of Social Development as there will often be a lot of extra information in the Ministry of Social Development file. which will be useful for historical and evidential reasons. Another example is health camps. These were run jointly by the Ministry of Health (running the residential side) and the Ministry of Education (running the school) so asking both organisations for your records may give you a fuller picture.
Do I have to make a claim if I get my records back?
No. You can just ask for them back anyhow, you don’t have to have a reason, and you don’t have to progress to a complaint. However, if you have any concerns, or just want a copy of your documents, it is best to ask for your records
Will this cost me anything?
No. Perhaps the cost of a stamp to send the request in, if you are doing it by letter, but you will not be charged for your information.
Do I have to use email to ask for my information?
No, you can use the telephone, write a letter, or use email. You could go to your local Ministry of Education office and ask to speak to someone to make your request in person. You could go to a Citizen’s Advice Bureau or a place offering free Legal Advice and they may be able to help you do this. You could ask a friend to help you, or even your doctor. The important thing is that you are making the request, not how it is done.
Can my records mistakenly go to someone else?
No, there is a very strict process to make sure that the records go to the correct person. You will be asked to provide ID at some point so that your identity and right to see the records is established beyond a shadow of doubt.
This happened a very long time ago, is there any point?
Yes. Many of the files and records held by government go back a very long time. It is always harder to look for old files, but it is not impossible. Less information is always held the further you go back, but it does not mean that it doesn’t exist. The effects of abuse may not come out for a long time and this is one of the reasons why some information has been kept forever.
School Retention and Disposal Schedule
Ministry of Education Retention and Disposal Schedule
Ministry of Social Development Contact Details
Ministry of Education Contact Details
Ministry of Health Contact Details