State primary, intermediate and secondary schools provide a free, compulsory and secular education for all young New Zealanders. Education is free from ages 5 to 19 and compulsory from ages 6 to 16. Many state schools, however, expect parents to pay fees to cover some school expenses that the state does not meet. State schools are co-educational at primary and intermediate levels. Most state secondary schools are also co-educational.
Since 1989, state schools have been governed by boards of trustees elected by parents.
Early childhood education
Although preschool education is not compulsory, many New Zealand children below the age of five attend kindergartens, playcentres or childcare centres. The playcentre movement involves parents and had an important social role in the last third of the 20th century.
After the 1877 Education Act established a secular system of education, the Catholic Church built up a separate, parallel system of primary and secondary schools to maintain Catholic identity. These schools have now been integrated with the state system. The state pays most of the costs of running integrated schools, which are required to have open entry. However, they are allowed to retain their special character.
There are also a number of private schools (mostly church-related). Some schools have chosen not to integrate with the state system and remain independent, fee-charging institutions. Some of the older schools have a socially élite character. Others have been established more recently, often by evangelical Christian churches. Private schools receive some state funding but are governed by independent boards.
Almost all the country’s tertiary education institutions (polytechnics, colleges of education and universities) receive state funds but are governed by independent councils. Part-fees are now charged for most tertiary courses. A student loan scheme helps maintain the tradition of open access to higher education, which resulted in the past from low fees, a bursary system and from students being able to earn money during the long summer break.
Most New Zealand children start school at five. More young people are now staying on later at school, though fewer Māori than non-Māori remain until they are 18.
The senior secondary school qualification is the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. One quarter of New Zealanders aged 15 or over have no educational qualification, while one in eight of the population holds a university degree.
Most Māori are educated within the state system. An initiative of the 1980s was to set up kōhanga reo (preschool language ‘nests’) to help the Māori language survive. Some young Māori continue their education in kura kaupapa Māori (schools in which Māori language is used and the education is based on Māori culture and values). Like other state schools, they are free. Wānanga (institutions of higher learning) have also been established.
All New Zealand children enjoy equal access to the state system, and Māori who send their children to kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa do so by choice.
A different agenda
Māori preschools and language schools were established only in the 1980s. They were not the first educational institutions in which Māori were given a separate education. But the Native Schools, which lasted from the 19th century until after the Second World War, were set up for other reasons: not to ensure that the language and culture survived but to assimilate Māori into the majority society. Many stories are told of young pupils being punished for speaking Māori in the Native School classrooms.
In rural New Zealand, the local country school was a focus of community life. The closing of such schools is partly the result of falling rolls as the rural population declines. Pupils are generally transferred to consolidated schools, where, it is claimed, a better education can be provided.