Education Central is excited to bring readers Reimagining Qualifications, an in-depth, high-quality, ground-breaking feature series that looks at the history, the purpose, and the future of qualifications in New Zealand.

Against the backdrop of the Government’s NCEA Review, this series will examine the possibilities for changing the way assessment and qualifications work in New Zealand, both in secondary and post-secondary education. This is the second of seven feature and opinion articles.

Debate over whether New Zealand’s school qualifications are fit and fair began soon after our first national exams were sat in the 1870s.

The debate has continued to surface at regular intervals ever since. Are our qualifications too elitist? Are they too dumbed down?  Are they assessing the right knowledge and skills in the right way?  Are they preparing students for the ‘real’ world, the ‘academic’ world or the ‘new’ world?  Should we have them at all?

Our fledgling qualification system had its beginnings in the 1870s with the creation of the University of New Zealand in 1870 and the passing of the 1877 Education Act. The latter introduced national, free and secular primary education for Pākehā and Māori aged five to 15 (compulsory between the ages of seven and 13).

The first exams had the role of setting the standards (to some extent rationing access) for what was a luxury for most in 19th-century New Zealand, a secondary school education – and for that even rarer of ambitions, a university education.

For much of the next 100 years or so, our qualification system, either blatantly or subtly, has continued to play a role in ‘rationing’ what further education or training options are available to our young people, determining what they are taught and how that learning is assessed.

Failing ‘standards’ and the kings and queens of England

When the Education Act was passed in 1877, there were just nine fee-paying secondary schools scattered across the country, catering mostly for the children of the wealthy: the likes of Auckland Grammar, Wellington College and Otago Girls’ High School.

The Act stopped short of funding free secondary education but did create district high schools – basically small secondary departments added to rural primary schools. It also created New Zealand’s first national system of ‘standards’ that set the bar for who could progress from a free state primary education to a fee-paying secondary education.

Each boy or girl had to pass the annual ‘standard’ examination, administered by the infamous school inspectors, to be able to move from Standard 1 to Standard 2 etc until at the end of Standard 6 (Form 2/Year 8) they sat the Proficiency Examination that decided whether they were able to go on to secondary school.

A sizeable proportion of pupils failed to cram enough facts into their heads to be allowed to reach Standard 6, let alone pass the Proficiency Examination.

For example, a Standard 4 (Year 6) pupil had to be able to reel off the kings and queens of England from 1066 to 1485 in chronological order and be able to find on a map of Europe “20 capes, 20 gulfs, bays and inland seas, 30 islands, 40 rivers, 20 mountain ranges, 6 peninsulas and 2 isthmuses”.

Schools’ standards pass rates were published by local newspapers and high exam pass rates soon became synonymous with a school’s success – something that continues into modern times – but back then led to such unscrupulous practices as ‘encouraging’ if not outright forbidding ‘backward’ children from attending school on examination day.

The practice of discouraging some students and cramming others to impress the inspectors was criticised in 1881 by the Inspector-General of Schools William Habens: “…. the standards are not meant to be used as a rack, to extort from children a broken utterance of the last facts and ideas that have begun to take hold of their memory and intelligence. They are not sent to school to pass in the standards, but to be educated.”

At the start of the 20th century the school leaving age was raised to 14 and at the request of teachers the external standards exams were dropped. This left only the Proficiency Examination at the end of Standard 6 as the ‘proof’ of a teacher’s success – which may have contributed to nearly 40 per cent of 14-year-olds leaving primary school in 1909, having been held back by their teachers from ever reaching Standard 6 (Form 2/Year 8).

There were still very few pupils moving on to the country’s by-then 25 secondary schools and 14 district high schools – a situation that George Hogben, the Education Department Inspector-General at the time, was keen to change.

He made the first two years of secondary school education at district high schools free for those who passed the Proficiency Examination, and started policy changes that eventually saw most of the endowment land secondary schools also offering free places and coming increasingly under the auspices of the Education Department.

His attempts to widen the secondary school curriculum to include vocational and technical education were less successful, leading in 1905 to his creating technical high schools and New Zealand having a dual secondary school system – one focused on preparing students for university and the professions and another for the trades – until the 1950s.

But his moves did lead to a marked upswing in New Zealanders getting a secondary education, from less than 2,800 students enrolled in 1900 to more than 7,000 in 1909 – including 2,200 students at technical high schools. Success in the junior civil service/public service entrance examination also gave students access to free secondary education beyond the 4th Form (Year 10).

Matriculation and UE

Back in 1872 – when half of all primary school-age children were rarely or never attending school – 38 candidates sat the University of New Zealand’s first national scholarship exam.

So in the same decade that the Education Act established standards and exams to decide who got to attend secondary school, the University of New Zealand also made its mark on what the end goal of a secondary school education should be – and that was preparing students for university.

In 1879 the university added the matriculation (university entrance) exam, which for nearly 70 years dominated the New Zealand secondary school curriculum.

By the 1930s, matriculation, which was usually sat at the end of the 5th Form (Year 11) – had lost its original purpose as a university entrance exam as most university bound students stayed on at school another year to gain Higher School Certificate or sit university scholarship exams. But ‘matric’ pass rates, like those of the Proficiency Examination for primary schools, was how the general public judged the success of a secondary school and its students.

That hadn’t mattered so much when only just over half of students actually went on to secondary school but change was afoot and in 1936 the Proficiency Examination was abolished and secondary school education became free to age 19. The result was that the number of students going on to secondary school jumped from 55 per cent to 70 per cent by 1940.

The late 1930s also brought in the first Labour Government. Education Minister (later Prime Minister) Peter Fraser stated in 1939 that “every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers”.

In charge of seeing this philosophy put into practice, and responding to a more diverse group of secondary students,­ was new Director of Education Clarence Beeby, who between 1944 and 1946 instituted a revolution in secondary education.

The school-leaving age was raised to 15; the secondary school curriculum was reformed to ensure the “general interests of the majority” were not “sacrificed to the special interests of the few”; and the ‘matric’ exam in 5th Form (Year 11) was scrapped and replaced with University Entrance (UE) in the 6th Form, which students gained either through meeting accreditation standards (internal assessment of their years’ work) or a second-chance exam.

From School Certificate to Achievement Standards

Then in 1946 came the creation of the School Certificate examination in the 5th Form (Year 11).

‘School Cert’ soon dominated the secondary school programme like ‘matric’ had before – with School Certificate being a rite of passage for the Depression generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X  and much of Generation Y, before finally being replaced more than 45 years later.

School inspectors noted in 1958 that School Certificate occupied too important a place in the eyes of the community and “the interest taken in it by pupils, parents and relatives is almost morbid”. There was also widespread criticism of using scaling to allow only 50 per cent of students to pass each year – once again qualifications were rationing who could access the senior secondary school years and beyond.

With School Certificate being the ever-present qualification for so many Kiwis aged in their mid-30s to their mid-80s, it is easy to forget that while the name may have stayed the same, the actual qualification kept evolving.

In 1967 the Department started allowing students to pass School Certificate in individual subjects rather than having to succeed in four. But it remained unpopular, with many educators calling for its abolition or reform as it was too narrow, too academic and didn’t set specific learning outcomes. The ongoing debate led to the marking system being revamped and in 1974 the option of internally assessing School Certificate art and mathematics was offered, with a few years later English and science also being added.

The push for more internal assessment of School Certificate continued, with in 1981 the Employers Federation joining in and adding a call for assessment against standards and the removal of the distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ courses.

The 6th and ‘Upper 6th/ 7th Form (Year 12-13) qualifications were also under the spotlight. In 1966 the University Bursaries exam was introduced in the 7th Form to inspire ‘greater efforts’ from non-scholarship students filling in a year to gain Higher School Certificate before heading to university. Then in 1969 came Sixth Form Certificate (with the aim of allowing schools to offer non-UE more vocational subjects) and in 1986 came the scrapping of UE altogether, to be wholly replaced by Sixth Form Certificate.

The reasoning behind the abolition of the UE exam in 1986 included the exam being too academically focused for the larger and more diverse 6th form population of the 1980s and that New Zealand was one of the few countries in which students faced the potential of three consecutive external exams (if they were not accredited UE in the sixth form).

The National Qualifications Framework

In the late 1980s a radical overhaul of the qualification system was signaled by a series of government reports that lead to the creation of the National Qualifications Framework in 1991 and the launch of the parallel, unit standards-based National Certificate system.

But the controversy-plagued National Certificate only had limited success in the school system during the 1990s – mostly when offering unit standards in non-traditional subjects like tourism.

The government in late 1998 announced a compromise proposal to be known as the National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) to replace all the established secondary school qualifications (except scholarship exams). NCEA introduced assessment against achievement standards and included both internal assessment and external exams.

The aim was to have a system that gave a more accurate reflection of a student’s skills and achievements in a subject – including non-traditional subjects – than that that could be provided by exam marks or internal assessment scores that had been scaled to ensure only so many students passed a year.

NCEA Level 1 got underway in 2002 and for much of its 16-year history NCEA has received its fair share of brickbats – and the occasional bouquet – as teachers, students, parents and employer slowly got to grips with the strengths and weaknesses of shifting to an achievement standards-based system.

Like School Certificate before it, NCEA has been through its tweaks and refining, including introducing moderation of internal assessment in 2008 in response to the public showing a lack of faith in internal assessment. (This was despite UE accrediting having been done internally by schools since 1946 and internal assessment of School  Certificate having started in 1974, with by the year 2000 about a third of schools internally assessing School  Certificate English.)

Now the debate has been opened up again on what is and isn’t fit and fair about our 21st-century qualification system and how it can be improved to benefit students, their teachers and their future employers. Whatever the outcome, history has shown that this is a debate that will keep on keeping on.



Two years after its founding, the University of New Zealand holds it first university scholarship exam.


Education Act passes, introducing national, free and secular education for Pākehā and Māori aged five to 15, which was compulsory between the ages of seven and 13.

This allows for the setting up of district high schools, but progression beyond Standard 6 (Form 2/Year 8) was dependent on passing the Proficiency Examination and secondary education was not free.


Senate of the University of New Zealand introduces Matriculation (university entrance) Examination.


School leaving age is raised to 14 – two years of free secondary education is offered through district high schools for all children who pass the Proficiency Examination.


Government starts funding free places in endowment-land-founded secondary schools for two years. By 1920 most secondary schools have joined district high schools in offering free education.


First technical high school.


Two Royal Commissions condemn the dominance of external exams in secondary schools and universities.


Secondary education up to age of 19 is made free.

Proficiency Examination to enter secondary education is scrapped.


Matriculation in 5th Form (Year 11) is replaced by accredited UE (with second chance exam) in 6th Form (Year 12).

School leaving age is raised to 15.

School Certificate examination is launched in 5th Form.


University Bursaries (UB) examination is introduced as incentive for ‘upper 6th Form (i.e. 7th Form/Year 13) beyond the Higher School Certificate.


School Certificate is now awarded in single subjects only.


Sixth Form Certificate is introduced for ‘Lower 6th’ Form (Year 12) – can include non-UE subjects.


Option of internally assessed School Certificate art and mathematics is introduced, followed by science and English in 1976.


NZ Employers Federation booklet calls for full internal assessment of School Certificate.


University Entrance (UE) replaced by Sixth Form Certificate i.e. shift to having two examination points for senior students – School Certificate in 5th Form (Year 11) and University Bursary in 7th form (Year 13)


A radical overhaul of qualifications is signalled by the Hawke Report. Project ABLE report says School Certificate has “largely outlived its usefulness” and calls for standards-based approach and single national certificate system.


National Curriculum Framework and National Qualifications Framework (NQF) is announced, including unit standards-based National Certificate.


First unit standards registered on NQF.


Achievement 2001: Further overhaul of senior school qualifications leads to announcement of National Certificate of Educational Achievement, including both internal and external assessment at three levels.


NCEA Level 1 is introduced, with Levels 2 and 3 following in 2003 and 2004.


NCEA certificate endorsement at Merit or Excellence level is introduced. Individual subject endorsement follows in 2011.


New rules allow one further internal assessment standard opportunity (‘re-sit’) per student per standard per year.


Proposals for a major reform of NCEA are announced and put out to consultation.



  1. i sat School Certificate in 1971 and missed all subjects was i scaled down at my High school after doing quite good during the year with internal exams- this has bothered me for so long and been very upsetting in my life. How can i fine out if this happened to me, i attended a low decile high school.


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