Most New Zealand students enter primary school grade 1 on or around their fifth birthday, though schooling does not become compulsory until age 6. Some 87 percent of three-year-olds and 92 percent of four-year-olds in New Zealand attend some form of early childhood education. The government funds 20 hours of ECE per week for all students, and this may include kindergartens with certificated ECE teachers, as well as daycare centers, home daycares, and co-op playgroups.
Primary school lasts for eight years, although some primary schools end at grade six, and students attend an intermediate school for grades seven and eight. Secondary school lasts for five years, for grades nine through 13, or ages 13 to 18. Though schooling is only compulsory through age 16, most students stay in school until graduation. The upper secondary school graduation rate in New Zealand is 95 percent.
The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the main secondary school qualification in New Zealand. It can be awarded at Levels 1, 2, and 3. Students usually begin studying for their NCEA Level 1 in Year 11 and continue to levels 2 and 3 through Years 12 and 13 (from ages 15 through to 18).
Students can pursue vocational education in secondary school, either through individual courses or in six industry specific NCEA pathways. These vocational pathways were launched in 2013 with input from industry and employer representatives. They specify course and credit types for vocational students to take which are aligned to the skills needed for industry. Many vocational qualifications are also offered in secondary schools alongside the NCEA. These include, for example, the National Certificate of Tourism, the National Certificate in Computing, and the National Certificate of Motor Engineering. Students who earn such qualifications typically earn at least an NCEA level 2 certificate as well.
Most secondary schools in New Zealand are state-owned and teach a nationally set curriculum. There are also state-integrated secondary schools which teach the national curriculum but which also have specific philosophic or religious traditions. A small number of private schools, funded almost exclusively through privately paid tuition fees, are allowed to develop their own curriculum and learning programs. Until recently, New Zealand authorized a small number of “Partnership schools”; these were charter schools which received government funding similar to state-owned schools but were not required to follow the national curriculum and had wide latitude to operate outside the regulations of the public school system. In 2018, however, the new Labour-led government passed legislation to deauthorize all charter schools and convert the eleven existing charter schools into state schools or state-integrated schools.
Standards and Curriculum
The New Zealand Curriculum Framework is the foundational policy statement covering teaching, learning, and assessment for all students in all New Zealand schools. This framework was the result of a 2007 curriculum overhaul by the Ministry of Education. It was introduced gradually between 2007 and 2010 in grades 1 through 13. The key themes of the new curriculum included promoting a set of common values, emphasizing topics and subjects more relevant to today’s society, and increasing the ties between schools and communities. It includes the following core subject areas: English; mathematics and statistics; health and physical education; learning languages; the arts; science; social science; and technology. For each of these subjects, it includes a set of goals for what students should be able to accomplish in a given year, and a set of topics to cover, concepts to include, and suggested materials for teachers to use.
Separately, National Standards were introduced in primary education in 2010 to provide clear expectations for student learning in mathematics, reading, and writing. These standards were an extension of the curriculum framework: they provided a set of expectations for student work at different levels, including exemplars of student work that meets each level of the standards, for each topic included in the curriculum. In 2018, however, the government sponsored legislation to eliminate the National Standards. Under the new system, the ministry would continue to report on student progress, but not against standards. The purpose of the change, according to the government, was to acknowledge that students learn at different rates and to enable teachers to provide a broader range of learning opportunities for students.
Assessment and Qualifications System
In the first 10 years of school, there are no national tests, and all assessment takes place internally at the school level. A set of nationally validated assessment tools are available to teachers to guide assessment practice in formative and summative assessment. Two sampling tests are administered on four-year cycles to samples of students in grades 4 and 8 in order to monitor the nation’s progress, but these do not have consequences for students or teachers.
There are no formal gateways between primary and secondary school. All students in New Zealand have the right to attend any school they wish, up to and including upper secondary school, and need only apply to attend in order to be admitted. Students who live in a school’s area (or zone) are guaranteed a place at their local school, and if a school has extra places, students from outside the zone can apply for those. First priority for out-of-zone admission is given to students accepted to special programs run by certain schools, then to siblings/children of current and former students and current employees, and then to all others through lottery. Students can pursue either an academic or a vocational pathway at the upper secondary level.
Students are assessed with consequences for the first time in upper secondary education (years 11 to 13). Standards and assessment criteria are provided by the New Zealand Qualifications Framework, which is managed by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Students are assessed against these standards and earn credits toward a National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). There are three levels of NCEA certificate that can be earned progressively depending on performance on exams and classwork that is checked by independent moderators from the NZQA, and the difficulty of the standards achieved by high school graduation. Students who want to continue to university must earn additional credits beyond a Level 3 and meet the requirements of the programs they want to study. . NCEA is recognized by employers and used as the benchmark for selection by universities and polytechnics. Furthermore, the framework is aligned with vocational education: successful completion of a vocational pathway in high school guarantees at least a certificate level 2 as well as an industry-recognized credential.
The Structure of New Zealand’s Education System