What’s Wrong with New Zealand’s Education System?

Seriously, I’m asking you.

People are always complaining about how bad New Zealand’s education system is, yet it’s ranked amongst the best in the world by the OECD. And I got through it okay.

I moved to New Zealand from the UK at the end of July, 2001. I was ten years old and had just finished Year Five. In New Zealand, the school year begins in February, not September, so I was short-changed on my summer holiday and thrown straight into the local primary school. The question was should I be put into a Year Five class or a Year Six class – do one-and-a-half years of Year Five or half a year of Year Six? The problem was solved by putting me in a combined Year Five and Six class with the intention of deciding where I belonged on the basis of how well I did.

My primary school in England had a uniform

My primary school in England had a uniform, unlike most primary schools in New Zealand.

As it turned out, I did very well. It seemed to me that New Zealand was about a year behind the UK in terms of the things I was learning. I felt like I didn’t learn anything new until Year Seven, which I entered the next year. In the UK, of course, Year Seven is usually the first year of secondary school, but it’s usual in New Zealand to have two years of ‘intermediate’ and enter secondary school in Year Nine. I hated intermediate, which, in my case, was merely an extension of primary school. I was bullied for being smart. (Tall poppy syndrome is a well-recognised epidemic in New Zealand. It’s not an entirely bad thing, as it curbs arrogance. New Zealanders tend to be very down-to-earth people.)

I was glad to finally get to secondary school. I lived in a small town, so the college I went to was the same one that both my parents taught at. According to them, New Zealand’s education system is neither better nor worse than the UK’s.

My dad says that teaching in New Zealand is less rigorous than in the UK; my mum says that New Zealand students tend to be more respectful towards their teachers than British students.

School in New Zealand is easier than school in the UK, but literacy and numeracy rates in the two countries are pretty similar. In fact, a greater percentage of New Zealand students enrol at university – although, admittedly, a greater percentage of those drop out after their first year. A big reason, I think, is they are simply not prepared for the amount of work they are required to do, or how hard they have to work.

My college's chess tournament. (I was runner-up.)

My college’s chess tournament. (I came second.)

When I arrived at the University of Auckland, one thing I kept hearing from lecturers and tutors was, “Forget what NCEA taught you.” NCEA does not prepare you for university standards.

NCEA is New Zealand’s National Certificate of Education Achievement. It’s the assessment system used by the majority of secondary schools. In Year Eleven, you work towards NCEA Level 1; Year Twelve, Level 2; Year Thirteen, Level 3. You have lots of different tests and assignments throughout the year, each one worth a certain number of credits, depending on how much work is involved. There are only four grades: Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit and Excellence, but you get the same number of credits regardless of whether you just pass or get full marks. There are exams at the end of each year, each made up of different sections that are worth different amounts of credits. Whether or not you get each successive NCEA level depends on how many credits you get all together.

The system is great for people who aren’t very good at exams. It means you aren’t doomed if you miss an exam, or if you uncharacteristically bomb. However, it doesn’t encourage students to push themselves. Of course, you’ll always get the swots like me, but for most people it’s a case of, “I’ve already got enough credits; I don’t need to bother learning that.” Many don’t bother turning up for exams because they’ve already passed. It really takes the edge of the stress.


Chess isn’t quite as popular as rugby…

Spelling, the correct use of English and general knowledge are not New Zealand’s strongest points. They’re not overly encouraged in school. Mediocrity reigns. Some complain that high-achieving students are disadvantaged by the system, as they’re left doing nothing, waiting for other students to catch up. I quite liked having nothing to do while others caught up, as it gave me time to read, write and revise other subjects.

NCEA is easy to pass; how hard you work is up to you.

New Zealand’s education system as a whole has its flaws, but so does the UK’s, and let’s not even mention the US. (Oops, I did.) Neither of my parents thinks that education in New Zealand is bad, and I suppose they’d be the ones to ask.

But I’m asking you too: What’s wrong with New Zealand’s education system? What’s right about it? Do think it deserves to be called world-leading? And does anyone out there actually like NCEA?

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7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with New Zealand’s Education System?

  1. Destin Finn says:

    I’m a Kiwi in year 13 at the moment and the main concern for me, in terms of the education system, is that people are more focused on getting credits than actually learning. This is good in terms of qualifications, but these days qualifications are not what count, learning and social skills have become more valuable in the the work force. When people focus on getting credits rather than learning, they miss out on the joy of learning new things because it interests them and the ability to think more creatively. New Zealand’s education system is great, better than that of many countries, but for me education should be something that inspires rather than drilling information into your head.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jianlye says:

      It easy said than done. Most students just want to pass. They like teachers prepare as the details for them to pass no bother to do themselves. This kind of”learning” makes those who want to do real learning suffering. But all personal effort counts! Learning in general is a personal. Other skills are needed in career.


  2. Sam says:

    From my experiences, it`s more to do with the environment for learning, than a set of testing criteria.

    A summarized back ground on myself:

    (1) I never did homework, unless it was going to be graded as part of my final years mark.

    (2) I suffered from numerous illnesses dues to living in very poor conditions during my primary and secondary years (lack of food, cold and damp housing etc).

    So many of my peers that were in the same situation are either struggling to make ends meet in life or have unfortunately passed due to social-economic woes to date. The education system, in the context of schools only functions if you have enough stability to facilitate the joy of learning. Any individual that has to deal with other factors which induce stress, are less likely to invest energy into learning.

    Ideally they should focus on education over the entire span on an individuals life, so they can access why people disengage from education and learning. Even in a broad sense, how can one expect to determine a persons potential from a small set of tests done at high school, and further more University.

    I still managed to function at an academic level in University obtaining a BSc in ecology. And from my experiences in the work force very few people engage in additional learning, even in fortune 500 companies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • kiwipom91 says:

      Yes. Of course it was easy for me – I lived in a warm home, always had enough food, had my own room with a desk and, most importantly, my parents supported me in everything. I suppose if I was coming home from school each day to a damp house full of screaming siblings that I had to help look after, with no quiet space of my own to sit, possibly leaving in fear of bigger issues, I’d be less inclined to do my homework.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. jianlye says:

    There is no good or bad education system. The most important thing is whether the students are safe in the system! If students are safe in the learning environment, the system is working. Students can learn only in the safety. NZ system is also encouraging students to learn, to explore, to experience thought it is not the best. It is definitely belong to one of the best. Individual achievement depends on personal gaol and effort and ethos. No perfect system anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

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