The school system

Going to school is compulsory for all children in New Zealand aged six to 16 although most children start when they turn five.

Children’s schooling begins at primary school. If it’s a ‘full’ primary school, they stay there from five to 12 years old. If it’s a ‘contributing’ primary school they will move onto to an ‘intermediate’ school for their last two primary school years, from 11-12 years old.

Intermediate schools, where they’re available, provide a bridge to the next step of secondary school (which is also sometimes called college, high school or grammar school).

For more information check Education New Zealand's website.

Education system | Ministry of Education

Great facilities, great atmosphere

Discipline is excellent in New Zealand schools and young people are made to feel comfortable and safe. Numbers range from a few hundred students up to 3,000 in a handful of schools.

School students

New Zealand schools are well equipped with computers, Internet and technology.

They have lots of room for outdoor play and sport – schools here usually have their own playing fields and sometimes even swimming pools. Cultural activities are well catered for too.

Teachers support a wide range of activities out of school hours – coaching sports teams in a huge variety of codes, leading drama clubs or school orchestras etc. Pupils in New Zealand also get many opportunities for educational trips, exploring New Zealand’s flora and fauna or challenging themselves with outdoor recreation pursuits they might otherwise never experience.

Types of school

There’s a choice of three types of school in New Zealand - state schools (funded by the government), ‘state integrated’ schools and private schools.

State schools are the choice for the vast majority of New Zealand children (85%). Schooling is free at these schools, although parents are asked for a contribution to help cover costs of activities that are outside of the core curriculum. Typically this will be around NZ$250- $650. There will also be other charges for sports, school trips, special tuition, exam fees, and other course related costs.

‘State integrated’ schools are schools with a special character - they may be run by a particular religious faith e.g. Catholic or use specialist education methods like Steiner or Montessori. Just over 10% of students are enrolled at these schools. Education in state integrated schools is also funded by the government but the schools may charge fees for various facilities which are usually around NZ$1,500 a year.

Just under 5% of children go to private schools which charge around NZ$20,000 in fees a year.

There is a mix of co-educational and boys or girls-only schools, and some schools have ‘boarding’ facilities so students can live there during the term.

The school day and holidays

School usually starts at 9am and runs to 3pm or 3:30pm. There are four school terms running from late January to mid-December with two-week breaks between them and a six-week summer break at the end of the year.

  • Term 1: Late January to early-April - Two week break
  • Term 2: Mid April to early July - Two week break
  • Term 3: Mid July to late September - Two week break
  • Term 4: Mid October to mid-December - Six week summer holiday

For exact dates check the Ministry’s website.

School terms and holidays | Ministry of Education

Enrolling in school

Most children in New Zealand start school on their 5th birthday and all children must be enrolled at school from their 6th birthday. Children start school at different times throughout the school year, depending on when their birthday is, or when it suits your family. Unlike other countries, there are no set start dates.

The Ministry of Education website states that if your child starts in the first half of the calendar year, they will be a Year 1, if they start in the second half of the calendar year, they will start as a Year 0 and the following year will be in Year 1. However, each school has their own policy - some schools state a specfic cut-off date while other schools decide in conjunction with the parent. The general practice is that children starting in Term 1 are definitely Year 1, and those that start in Term 3 are definitely in Year 0. If your child starts in Term 2, you will need to check with your school about which year they will be placed in.

Often, the decision does not have to be made straight away - you can decide at the end of that first year or even later so don't rush the decision. Do remember though that while it may be flattering to have your child "put up", there are implications for the child always being young in their class and this can be especially problematic as children reach their teens and may have children in their class nearly a year older.  

Hot tip

Enrolling your child mid-year

Because each situation is different, it is best to contact the school your child will be starting in and talk with them about what Year it would be best for them to join.

The use of Year levels continues right through to secondary school where a student who graduates finishes their schooling at Year Thirteen. 

You can enrol your child into school at any time of year. Children who start school in New Zealand after the age of six are automatically placed in the same year level as other children his/her age. For older children, which Year they join also depends on giving them time to complete NCEA qualifications. Because each situation is different, it is best to contact the school your child will be starting in and talk with them about what Year is best for your child.

School overview | Kiwi Families

Getting to school

There are primary schools in every suburb and town - sometimes several of them. So most New Zealand primary pupils walk or ride their bikes to school. Of course, parents often choose to drive them as well. Many younger pupils travel in a ‘walking school bus’ - organised and supervised groups.

Intermediate and secondary schools tend to be bigger and serve a much wider geographic area, so bus and occasionally train travel is usually involved.

The school zones Mapfinder website shows the bus routes children can take to school.

Some schools are eligible for a transport subsidy. That means either they provide a special ‘school bus’ service for pupils, or parents qualify for an allowance to help with transport costs.

You can find out more about eligibility, entitlement zones, bus routes, school bus safety, and travel assistance for students with special needs in the school transport section of the Ministry of Education website.

NZ school zones Mapfinder | Ministry of Education

School transport | Ministry of Education

Education in New Zealand

Discipline in schools

Physical discipline (eg. smacking, caning or strapping) of children is not allowed in New Zealand.

So school punishments usually involve detention (staying after school) or extra work.

It’s not just in schools - it’s illegal in New Zealand for anyone to use force to discipline a child. A parent may only use force to prevent a child from harm, but a teacher may not use force in any situation.

One of the regional Community Law services has an excellent publication about the rights of children and what schools can do in terms of disciplining children.

Schools and the right to discipline | Community Law (PDF 5.6MB)

Curriculum and qualifications

At primary school, what pupils study is guided by our ‘National Curriculum’.

Pupils at secondary schools work towards the requirements laid down for our National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). Some secondary schools also offer Cambridge International Exams, International Baccalaureate or an Accelerated Christian Education programme.

Understanding the NCEA | NCEA

IB World Schools in New Zealand | IB Schools NZ

Cambridge Schools in NZ | Association of Cambridge Schools

National Standards and primary schooling

New Zealand’s National Curriculum for primary schools aims to create ‘confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners’ with a strong foundation in reading, writing and maths. The curriculum focuses on eight learning areas: English, the arts, health and physical education, languages, mathematics and statistics, science, social sciences, technology.

Pupils’ reading, writing and maths are regularly assessed against expectations for their age level as set out by the National Standards.

As a parent you’ll receive reports twice a year. You’ll also have the opportunity to discuss your child’s progress in regular ‘meet the teacher’ sessions.

The Ministry of Education’s website has information on the National Standards and how they work in schools.

National Standards | Ministry of Education

New Zealand students

Check out 'zoning' rules and whether it will affect the choice of schools for your children.

Choosing a school

National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) and secondary schooling

New Zealand’s main national qualification at secondary level and beyond is the National Certificate of Educational Achievement.

In very simplified form, here’s how it works:

Each year, students study a number of courses or subjects. (As well as traditional academic subjects, schools can offer courses that will count towards other qualifications that are on what’s called the National Framework like tourism or motor engineering.)

In each subject, students are assessed through classroom work and exams against a number of standards. For example, in Mathematics one standard might require students to demonstrate they can ‘apply numeric reasoning in solving problems’.

When a student achieves a standard, they gain credits. When they’ve achieved the required number of standards and added up enough credits, they get an NCEA certificate.

It can be an NCEA Level 1, 2 or 3 certificate. The higher the level, the more advanced the topics.

Each NCEA Level certificate can also come with Merit or Excellence endorsements for students who perform especially well.

Careers New Zealand has more information on how NCEA works, what you can do as a parent and also advice on how students should choose their subjects.

How to understand NCEA | Careers New Zealand

NCEA’s wide recognition

NCEA is recognised by tertiary institutions in New Zealand and in countries around the world including Australia, the USA, UK and Europe, India, Thailand and South Korea. There are more details about NCEA recognition on the website of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, NZQA. This is the government body responsible for maintaining the quality of New Zealand’s qualifications system.

International recognition of NCEA | NZQA

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Page last updated: 01/09/2016

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