Center on International Education Benchmarking

New Zealand was among CIEB’s Top Performing Countries for 2009. This profile has been archived and is no longer being updated.

System Design

Education is compulsory for New Zealand children between the ages of six and sixteen, although students typically begin school at the age of five (the majority of students also attend some form of pre-school starting at age three or four). 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 9 through 13, or ages thirteen to eighteen. Students who choose not to stay in school through year 12 (or approximately age eighteen) are allowed to leave at age sixteen.  Students can pursue vocational education in secondary school, either through individual courses or specially dedicated tracks. The upper secondary school graduation rate in New Zealand is 90%.


In 2007, the Ministry of Education completed a curriculum overhaul, and introduced the new curriculum gradually between 2007 and 2010. The key themes of the new curriculum included promoting a set of common values, emphasizing topics and subjects more relevant to today’s society, such as foreign languages, technology and statistics, and increasing the ties between schools and communities. The new curriculum also developed five key competencies for students. Under this overarching set of goals, the Ministry provided guidelines in both English and Maori.

The curriculum emphasizes eight key learning areas: mathematics and statistics, social sciences, arts, technology, science, health and physical education, English, and foreign languages, and several values: excellence, innovation, inquiry, curiosity, diversity, equity, community, respect, integrity and sustainability. It was delivered to schools alongside guidelines for design and implementation and a list of pedagogical goals: encouraging reflective thought and action, creating a supportive learning environment, enhancing the relevance of new learning, facilitating shared learning, making connections between learning and experience, providing sufficient opportunities to learn, and teaching as inquiry. Alongside the curriculum, the ministry has developed professional development standards for teachers so that they can successfully implement the new content, as well as resources and teaching materials.


Until 2010, The National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) was New Zealand’s national diagnostic assessment. It was used to capture broad trends in educational performance in order to inform policy decisions. NEMP tested a sample of students in grades 4 and 8 in all curriculum areas over a four-year cycle. Currently, the Ministry of Education is in the process of developing assessments aligned with the New Zealand Curriculum, which was introduced in 2007. These assessments, like NEMP, will be used for diagnostic purposes.

All students also undergo school-based assessment, in which teachers observe the performance of their students in daily classroom tasks. Various types of classroom assessments include teacher observation, written work, student self-assessment, peer assessment, portfolios, benchmarks, conferences and tests. Guidelines for teachers uncertain how to best assess their student in any given subject or skill are provided through Assessment Resource Banks (which are aligned to the curriculum), the Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (asTTles, another Ministry-endorsed set of resources) and New Zealand Curriculum Exemplars, which are examples of student work at various achievement levels. Each of these vary somewhat in the information they provide to teachers, and the majority of the resources are available online. Parents have the option of allowing their student to take a school entry assessment at the age of five, which allows teachers to gain a better understanding of an individual child’s needs and skills.


In primary schools, teachers use multiple teaching strategies, including individual and group activities. Sometimes two or more classes are grouped together for lessons. At this stage, instructors typically promote entire classes to the next grade at the same time despite differences in abilities. In lower secondary school, students continue to be grouped by age, although some schools do elect to stream students for subjects such as mathematics and English. Other schools separate students by “band,” providing different work for the top- and bottom- performing students in certain subjects.

From grade 11 onward (upper secondary school), students can choose to focus on specific subjects, such as the sciences or the humanities. Teachers provide guidance about these choices, but the choice is ultimately left to students and parents, and students may change their mind each year. Schools promote open access to all senior secondary studies, encouraging “social advancement.”

New Zealand has increasingly been moving to an instructional focus on student engagement rather than on only dissemination of content. Therefore most New Zealand classrooms involve a large degree of student participation, activities and group work, in contrast to the older, lecture-based model.

The Structure of New Zealand’s Education System


There are no formal gateways between primary and upper 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. Overcrowded schools must apply to the Ministry for permission to turn students away; once granted permission, they may then develop selection criteria for students. Students who may want to pursue vocational studies at this stage are allowed to combine those classes with general classes. Students who want to continue to tertiary education must earn the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) at the end of secondary school, based on school performance and a combination of subject credits. The NCEA has three levels, based on academic achievement, which is generally measured by an externally-graded examination but in some cases is measured by a portfolio of student work. Typically, students attain level one in grade 11, level two in grade 12 and level three in grade 13, if they finish their studies.  Exceptional students can also be awarded NCEA with merit, or NCEA with excellence, and can also take extra examinations known as scholarship examinations to earn scholarship money for tertiary education. Upon earning the NCEA, students apply for entrance at a university of their choice. Universities range from selective to open admissions, and students also have the option of going to a teacher’s college or to a polytechnic institution for vocational training.

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