Secondary School Education

The New Zealand Education system is rated one of the best in the world (Legatum Prosperity Index 2013), and is based on encouraging the enjoyment and discovery of learning, and not forcing memorisation of facts.

Every public school is a “local” school, where education is provided for every child living in that school zone. Most parents are very happy with the education provided by their local school, with only 5% of school children attending private schools, and very few attending schools out of their zone.

Unlike in other countries, children are not divided at an early age into separate Vocational schools and Academic schools, but each school provides the same broad education up to Year 10. Up to then, students get a small amount of optional choice, but after Year 10, their subject choices become more specialised, and Level 1 of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) begins.

Year 11: (Level 1 NCEA) some students specialise in completely academic courses while others take mixture of academic and vocational subjects.

Year 12: (Level 2 NCEA) as above, students may take a mixture of academic and vocational subjects, but many finish school at the end of the year to go into other training for vocational qualifications. These are often at an ITP (Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics) offering qualifications from Level 2 to Level 9 (Master’s degree).

Year 13: Level 3 NCEA) This year was traditionally focused on students studying academic subjects to gain the University Entrance qualification (UE) and going on to a degree at a University or an ITP. Nowadays it is quite common for students to stay on after Year 12, and study a mixture of subjects. However, these students are not eligible for UE (More about this below).

In New Zealand the most important factor affecting a child’s success at school is their attitude and self-motivation. Clearly, this comes from

  1. Their parents (initially, and most importantly)

  2. The friendships made at school (increasingly, as students get older)

  3. Their teachers and the school “Climate” (always)

For International Students, another factor is very important: how well are students helped and supported?

Choosing a secondary School

How can parents judge the quality (and climate) of a school?

Decile Rankings

These are taken from the 5 yearly Census, and estimate the income level of all of the people living in that school zone. For example, in a Decile 10 school zone, the average income of all adults is in the top 10% of all New Zealand income earners. However, that is only an average. Every school zone will have a mixture of wealthy families, and less-wealthy families.

Why does this matter?

For schools, it matters because government funding per student is based on decile levels – the lower the level, the higher the funding. (And therefore some lower decile schools have better facilities than higher decile schools)

For parents, it is assumed that more wealthy parents will be more interested in their child’s education, and their children will be better motivated to succeed. However, this is not always true at all, and as above, many schools, even at Decile 5, will have many high income families.

NCEA and University Entrance results

As above, students begin NCEA at Level 1 in Year 11 and can study all academic subjects, or all vocational subjects, or a mixture, and will finish school with a range of credits at different levels, and in various subjects.

The overall results of NCEA for each school are published annually, and can be easily misinterpreted.

  • Some schools have a large proportion of their students studying easier vocational subjects, so naturally will show much higher pass rates in NCEA than schools where most of the students study academic subjects.

  • Some schools encourage all students to attempt UE, but other schools do not allow students to enter UE unless they are sure they will pass, so their pass rates in UE will be much higher than other schools. The higher pass rate does not mean that they are doing a better job for their students than other schools are.

In 2015, the government encouraged all schools to try to get students who had been leaving at the end of year 12 to stay another year, and study vocational subjects at Year 13. They also changed the eligibility for UE to require 3 academic “university approved” subjects, rather than 2 as it had been for many years, and also increased the English study required at Level 2. The overall effect was to try to make a clear difference for students aiming for UE, and those not requiring UE. However, when they published the results, they did not separate the results of the students who attempted UE from those who attempted only vocational subjects. Consequently, schools who did encourage vocational students to stay at school for another year, in clear vocational courses, had results that showed big drops in “UE pass rates.” For example, one of our Choose New Zealand member schools worked very hard to provide excellent vocational courses in Year 13, but their UE pass rate for 2014 shows only 45%. The pass rate of those who actually attempted UE remained at almost 80% – an excellent result, as usual. (That school also has a top-rated ERO report, explained below.)

Why does this matter?

These published results are accurate, but easily misunderstood. Schools who want their statistics to “look better” can restrict entry to UE courses, while schools who cater to a wider range of student needs will have statistics that do not look so good. Parents should treat these figures with caution when choosing a school.

Education Review Office Report (ERO)

The ERO visits every public school regularly to make an in-depth analysis and report, which is published on its website. The majority of schools fall into a 3 year cycle of visits, but some do not.

  • One to two years – Concerns about some important issues

  • Three years – Good performance, with elements of high performance

  • Four to five years – High quality performance is evident

There is a separate section of each report about how well the school looks after International Students, and how well the school complies with the NZQA “Code of Practice.” All schools are good, but some are excellent!

The ERO reports current in 2014 show, for Auckland schools

7 - 89716
4 - 6411116
2 - 327312

Members of the Choose New Zealand Education Alliance will have a summary of the main points of their ERO report listed on our website soon.

Why does this matter?

The ERO report gives a much better idea to parents of how well a school performs academically, and how well it looks after its students. However, the ERO report is a lengthy document, and our summary will be the easiest way for parents to evaluate various schools.

Co-curricular activities

New Zealand schools offer a very wide range of sports, cultural, and community activities.

What should parents look for?

Some schools offer specialised activities as well as the normal curriculum for example, because of their geographic location, or because of their size

  • Skiing at a school in a mountain area

  • Marine Biology in a seaside school

  • Horticulture in a rural school

  • Larger schools usually offer a wider range of “co-curricular” activities, and may specialise in Rugby, Athletics, or Swimming, or in Music, Theatre, Dance, or Art.

  • Smaller schools may provide an environment where students can make friends, and get to know their teachers, more easily.

Parents can see information about these on a school’s website.

Why does this matter?

It is well understood in New Zealand that students should be well-rounded. For example, the University of Auckland Medical School no longer accepts applicants solely on academic success. Doctors must be able to relate to all types of people, so the Med School is looking for well-rounded students who have been involved in sports, cultural, or community activities. These criteria are being increasingly applied by many international bodies.

What other factors should parents consider?

The Choose New Zealand Education Alliance has members of all types of schools, all around New Zealand. All schools have a level of quality guaranteed by the government, and all of New Zealand is safe, but parents may want to consider “lifestyle” factors, such as

  • Boys school, girls school, or co-ed (mixed)?

  • Religious, or non-religious? (Catholic and other religions are available)

  • Busy city or quiet country?

  • Uniform, or no uniform?

  • Fees? (Bigger schools, and in Auckland, are the most expensive!)

  • Cultural mixture? (A broader mix will give a more “international” experience.)


New Zealand offers a wide range of different types of schools, many emphasisiing different aspects of education, but all must meet quality standards set by the New Zealand Government. The results speak for themselves. Not only is our education system ranked best in the world (Legatum Prosperity Index 2013), but comparative tests of student performance show high world rankings.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Scores by New Zealand students for literacy, maths and science are amongst the highest in the world, and the measure of top all-round students, puts New Zealand at double the OECD average.

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