Parata in privacy storm over class-size criticism

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:00 23/12/2012
Hekia Parata and Lesley Longstone
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ

PARTNERS NO MORE: Hekia Parata and Lesley Longstone.

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Education Minister Hekia Parata has been rapped over the knuckles by the Privacy Commissioner for going over the head of a teacher who had written to her, and replying to the school board instead of the letter-writer.

The revelation of the commissioner's investigation comes two weeks after Parata apologised for bungling the response to a letter written by the school principal, after a 13-year-old pupil committed murder.

In May, Waitara High School science teacher Dawn Laurence wrote a letter to Parata expressing concern about plans to increase class sizes. Laurence sent the letter from her home address and used plain paper, rather than school letterhead.

The teacher was "very angry" when, instead of replying directly to her, Parata wrote a letter to the Waitara High board of trustees, and merely copied Laurence in on the correspondence.

Laurence's letter explained she was head of science at Waitara High, but only "because it's important that people know why you're writing".

She had considered the letter private.

Laurence said that although little harm was done in her case, informing a teacher's board about private correspondence was a "breach of privacy". If teachers could not be sure that their letters would be treated in confidence, they might be reluctant to speak openly, or act as a whistle-blower.

"I'm at the stage of my career where it doesn't matter. But for a young teacher heading upwards, it could be used against them."

Following an investigation, the Privacy Commissioner informed Laurence that Parata's office had "clarified" the guidelines for replying to school employees, and that in future, letters such as Laurence's would receive a reply to the writer only. However, replies to letters sent from school email addresses or on school letterhead would still be copied to school boards and principals.

Earlier this year Parata came under fire from teachers' unions and Labour's associate education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, who said they had received numerous complaints from teachers about replies from the minister going to school boards. But Laurence's case is the only instance where the Privacy Commissioner became involved.

A spokesperson for Parata said the guidelines for responding to teachers were changed months ago.

Last week Parata apologised to Waitara High principal Jenny Gellen over her initial failure to respond to a letter in which Gellen complained that the school had never been informed about the troubled background of Jordan Nelson, a 13-year-old pupil who went on to commit murder.

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