To understand the New Zealand schooling system, start by thinking of it as being divided into a number of parts, based approximately on student age:
Early Childhood (under 5)
Primary (5 to 11)
Intermediate (11 to 13)
Secondary (13 to 17)
Tertiary (18 through adulthood).
Then understand that the boundaries between these parts are not necessarily always rigid. For example, some so-called “Primary” schools will hold children of “Intermediate” age until they move straight from “Primary” School to “Secondary” School. Or, some rural areas with small populations may have “District High Schools” which combine Primary, Intermediate and Secondary functions. All schools hold a high degree of autonomy, with genuine power in the hands of locally elected Committees and Boards so they tend to operate flexibly within the general rules in ways that are responsive to the communities they serve. New Zealanders on the whole like this degree of flexibility, and are normally very supportive of their local schools, in all their diversity.
The state provides a “free and universally available” education system through taxpayer funding, but once again there is flexibility. For example, parents are often asked to make voluntary donations to state-funded schools, to enable that particular school to go beyond basic standards. That level of “voluntary” donation ranges from insignificant, to modest, and the attitude of the school can vary also, from treating the donation as truly voluntary and optional, to the sort of “volunteering” Sergeants Major in the Army use! At a local community level these issues can sometimes create controversy but on any international comparison the system is about as “free of cost and universally accessible” as anyone could reasonably expect.
Alongside and integrated with this state system are church and privately funded schools and charter schools (called "partnership Schools") which require varying financial contributions from parents depending on the individual philosophy or level of endowment of the school. In this part of the system there is wide variation in cost. For example, when controlled by churches, or well endowed, some very excellent private schools are close to free; while others may reach fee levels comparable to private schools overseas.
In the State sector, most Primary and Intermediate schools are mixed sex. Secondary Schools may be mixed or single sex and controversy always swirls around which are best. The church and private sectors tend more towards single sex schools, but there is no hard and fast rule.
Most schools are “day schools”; a few are residential; some offer associated “hostels” and some manage “home stay” programmes.
In addition to all the above there are three other parts of our system that need brief explanation.
There are a few schools that specialize in children with disabilities; but not many because New Zealand is committed to “mainstream integration”. Physically or intellectually handicapped children are usually given special support that allows them to be educated along with everyone else, or sometimes in “units” integrated within mainstream schools.
There are also schools where, by consent of local communities, education is undertaken in an environment of Maori language and cultural immersion. These schools still maintain the same curriculum standards and are often attended, by choice, by non-Maori children. The fact that they are sometimes called “Maori” schools, or have Maori names does not indicate any degree of separation, but simply of choice of cultural emphasis. Many see the bi-lingual outcomes of such schools as a distinct benefit.
There are are 7 schools in New Zealand called “Middle Schools”. These are like “Intermediate” schools, but hold their students longer so that they are more mature before they enter the “Secondary” system. Supporters of this initiative are very positive about the benefits.
Dress codes vary, but a common model in the State Sector is for Primary schools to be relaxed about dress code (while often insisting on hats, for sun protection); Intermediates to be relatively firm on a uniform dress code, and for Secondary schools to usually require a uniform but with some adopting a “liberal” stance. Where dress code is required, uniforms are normally based on low cost, durable, easily obtainable clothing. In the Private sector, uniforms tend to be more elaborate, distinctive and expensive.
The school year.
The school year starts in late January / early February, and has four terms (not three as in many overseas systems). The dates vary from year to year to accommodate flexible Public Holidays like Easter but a rough guide is as follows:- (Remember, summer in NZ is December through March; winter is June through October)
Term one - Late Jan /Early Feb to Mid April
Term two- Early May to Early July
Term three- Late July to Late September
Term four- Early October to Mid December
From the third year at Secondary School (year 11, or sometimes still known in old terminology as “5th Form”) students work towards units of a National Certificate of Educational Attainment (NCEA). This is a very flexible programme made up partly of external exam and partly of internal assessment. It is part of a “National Qualification Framework” that is designed to provide integrated educational incorporating Secondary Schooling, Trade Training and Tertiary Education that will empower life-long learning and the measurement of standards achieved rather than just exams passed.
Like most things to do with Education in New Zealand this system is, at once, forward looking and controversial, and has its supporters and distracters. Typically, to meet the desires of the traditionalists, New Zealand has allowed parallel systems to develop and some schools encourage students to pursue external examinations like the International Baccalaureate or Cambridge Exams. It is a matter of parental and student choice.
The glue that binds it together.
What binds this system together, and ensures it’s integrity from your child’s point of view, in spite of its diversity, is that all of the above parts work to agreed, government mandated, curriculum standards, and are independently overseen by a powerful and transparent Education Review Office.
Where will your child fit in?
Researching individual schools will sometimes be a little confusing at first, but it will be helpful if you think of the five parts mentioned above; Pre school, Primary, Intermediate, Secondary and Tertiary; and to then think of those parts existing side by side in state and non- state sectors.
As a general rule, Primary schools (ages 5-11) are very flexible. Staff tend to be student centered. Movement between classes and age groups is common. Fitting your child in will present few problems. The time of year is relatively unimportant, staff will fit programmes around children, and if, after settling in, it becomes apparent your child needs to move around a little to find his or her niche that will be seamlessly and sensitively achieved.
Intermediate Schools (ages 11 to 13) often provide a child the very best school years because curriculum and staff motivation are focused on the pre-teen child and extracurricular programmes like music, sports and clubs flourish in this specialized setting. But the age group can be dynamite and it is often more difficult for new comers to fit in with established peer groups. While staff will always co-operate, it may pay to try to fit your Intermediate student into the start of a school year, or at least into the start of a term.
When it comes to Secondary schooling (ages 13 to 17), staff focus often moves away from just pastoral care towards an equal or stronger focus on curriculum. Your decision of when, where and how to integrate your child will depend on your knowledge of your individual child and his or her strengths and weaknesses, both academically and in terms of their personality and maturity. Teen years can be a challenge and fitting in to a new environment can be either stressful or exciting, depending on the individual. Any Secondary school in New Zealand will welcome your visit, and will work constructively with you to help you make the best decision.
By the time your child is ready for Tertiary education he or she will be a young adult. This briefing does not cover Tertiary education in detail, although the associated links, to the right, will give you access to a lot of information. There is a wide array of both private and public Universities and Tertiary Institutions in New Zealand, offering education from practical through trade training, Diplomas, Degrees and Post Graduate study. Loans are available to assist with most tertiary study, on which interest is deferred until after graduation. Standards of training vary, as they do all around the world with some having only average reputations to others that are internationally regarded as leading edge.
Our advice is to do your research and choose carefully. It is absolutely true to say that “New Zealand offers world class tertiary education”; but it is not true to say that just because a tertiary education provider is in New Zealand, that it is therefore necessarily world class.
The major independent schools have an association.
Here are New Zealand’s 8 universities, with their home cities listed geographically from North to South. Most also have campuses away from their home cities.
Institutes of technology and polytechnics.
Institutes of technology and polytechnics have historical connections to practical learning and trade training but in their modern form many have emerged as degree - issuing universities. Some have multiple campus sites and some specialize in distance learning (including with students who are based out of New Zealand.
The Education Review Office is the powerful independent body that provides the glue that holds the Primary, Intermediate and Secondary sectors together. This web site is technical but you can use it to search ERO reviews of any school.
The New Zealand Qualifications Authority provides quality assurance over qualifications in New Zealand which in practice means over secondary schools and tertiary institutions. This web site is somewhat technical.