The first challenge for the discerning parent is that school zoning makes it difficult, although not impossible, to send your children to a state school that is out of your zone.

There is only a small chance of working within the zoning rules, which are available on the Ministry of Education’s and many schools’ websites. These include your child having a sibling who has attended the school; if you are an ‘old girl’ or ‘old boy’; if you or your partner work there; and if you sit on the board. You may have the best chance if, say, you have moved out of the area, your children already attend the school and you want another to attend.

Some people have used ‘dodgy’ or perhaps fraudulent practices to get past the system, including buying an apartment within the zone, using a business address as their home address and even using a friend’s address as their postal address.

Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand president and Pakuranga College head Mike Williams advises that if you really like a particular state school, you should consider changing areas – and paying the extra money to own a house nearby. But for many people, if not most, that will be unaffordable.

However, he also points to the research by expat Kiwi and top education expert Professor John Hattie (NZOM). Now Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, Hattie has concluded there are actually more differences between the performance of similar children within a school than between different schools.

Do your research

Both Williams and Hattie advise visiting the school to do your own research. Any good school will have an open day or evening, with teachers and students being present.
Also, what do you find when you look up the ‘Rate my Teachers’ website?

You may find schooling has changed a lot since late last century: there may be a broader range of subjects available, including philosophy and photography, as well as other subjects to support post-school technical qualifications.

Williams says many problems are now solved in groups, reflecting the modern workplace.
“For most employers today, the lone wolf is a liability,” he says.

Hattie, who has four grown-up children, has prepared some advice for discerning parents, including asking if you can sit in on a lesson.

Some of his advice may surprise you as it is quite different from what so many parents focus on. The main premise is that good teaching is the key – so it’s what the principal does to make good teachers better that matters. He also advises finding out whether teachers collaborate within the school – the idea being that teachers get better by working together.

Open days

On an open day, Hattie says, “Focus on the school’s attitude to teachers and teaching.”
Does the school have ‘open doors’ so other teachers can offer them feedback on their work?

“Do teachers observe one another’s teaching and give each other constructive feedback?”
Assessment is an idea Hattie turns on its head. The idea behind it is not to ‘judge’ but to provide feedback to the teacher– so that they can adjust their teaching to suit.

Hattie says schools should also learn from each other, as is actually practised in many New Zealand schools. The question to ask, he says, is “How much professional development is available to teachers?”

There are also cultural differences between some of the grammar schools, other state schools and integrated Catholic and fully private schools.

You may wish to consider a single sex school for a girl. Some research suggests girls may have more chances to be leaders at single sex schools. Most grammar schools, integrated Catholic schools and private schools are single sex.

Some schools offer accelerated programmes for their top students, such as those gifted in mathematics. Williams recalls a 14-year-old boy who had achieved Year 12 maths in Year 10. They advised him to take other subjects for a while “but he still snuck in some maths”. He later received a scholarship.

Size may mean more choice

Some larger schools may offer a wider range of subjects, such as more options in languages and science and more extensive music programmes, for example, than smaller schools. With a good school play, says Williams, “students may learn more there than in maths for a few weeks … [although] it might be heresy to say it”.

Some schools, such as Auckland Grammar and Macleans College, offer the English ‘Cambridge’ exam system as an alternative to the state’s NCEA system.

Consider what your teenager is like. Are they self-disciplined? Many people who are high achievers at school fail their university exams because they are not motivated enough to study unsupervised. And then there is the partying.

Go Catholic

Catholic schools are a significant alternative to the state system. According to the Catholic Education Office’s website (, New Zealand has 15 Catholic secondary schools and 43 primary schools. Most are smaller than state colleges, although Sacred Heart College (for boys) and Baradene College of the Sacred Heart (for girls) both have rolls of more than 1,200.

Some Catholic schools accept a percentage of students who are not practising Catholics – although Catholic Education Office CEO Paul Ferris says it is expected that all students will attend religious classes.

Catholic schools have changed since last century. Some (state-integrated) Catholic schools have first-class facilities – arguably better than nearby state schools.

Ferris says only about 40 per cent of teachers are practising Catholics and only a handful of religious staff are still teaching. Most parents are Catholic, but not all practise regularly. Fees are a fraction of those in private schools – Ferris says the compulsory element is $800 a term, plus donations, which vary widely.

The Metro magazine schools issue, containing league tables on schools’ exam results, came out recently. It’s good reading but Williams cautions: “You can’t sum up a school with a number.” So do your homework.

Questions you should ask

It’s good practice to attend an open day or evening at the school you are considering. Talk to students and teachers and question, question, question.

  • What do the students think about their teachers? Does the school try to stretch them academically?
  • Is there a ‘whole child’ policy (such as teaching everyone a musical instrument) or is the school purely into getting good exam results?
  • What are the wall displays in the classrooms like?
  • Does the school use regular assessment, and adjust their instruction to suit, such as offering ‘catch-up’ classes in maths?
  • Does the school offer a broad range of subjects, including all the sciences, chemistry, physics, and biology? And does it offer a wide range of foreign languages?
  • How much are both the compulsory and non-compulsory fees?
  • When was the last time the teachers went to a professional development course?
  • What formal programme does the school have for teachers to obtain feedback from teachers elsewhere?
  • Does the principal value professional development and collaboration between teachers?
  • Can you sit in a period?
  • How extensive are the sports programmes?
  • Does the school have its own pool, with water-sports teams?


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