Recently released school leaver data for 2018 shows more students are leaving school before gaining NCEA Level 3 or university entrance.

The data showed a slight decrease in university entrance award attainment and small declines, about 1 percentage point, for school leavers in getting NCEA levels 1-3.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary of Evidence, Data and Knowledge, Dr Craig Jones, said over-all attainment remained high despite the small declines.

A buoyant labour market appeared to be leading some students to go straight into employment rather than staying on at school, he said.

However, it is important for all school leavers to continue lifelong learning so that they have the skills and qualifications to adapt when economic circumstances change.

Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams said he was disappointed to see the slight drop in NCEA attainment but recently released tertiary participation data showed a 12 per cent growth in younger people (19 and under) taking up apprenticeships, which is positive.

“Both trends are likely connected to the buoyant job market – it’s great to see more employers making commitments to young people and taking them on for training without them having to take up student loans.

“Those young people are not making a choice between education and employment – they are doing both.

“We need more young people to be continuing their education after leaving school through taking up formal traineeships and apprenticeships and that’s why it is crucial that employers have confidence in the changes the government is making to the industry training system so they keep hiring more apprentices.”

Careers advisor David Trought said while the data shows only a small change, one per cent, it can be an issue for early school leavers to actually get jobs.

“Most people who are leaving school early are going into apprenticeships, not jobs.”

Employers generally want people who are 18 and have a driver’s licence, he said.

Most of the time when a student wants to leave school early it is because they are sick of school but they’re not really sure what to do or what they can do.

Gaining NCEA Level 3 and university entrance gives students more options, even if they don’t use them, but if they are really set on leaving early it is important to speak to a careers advisor to help them realise their talents and what pathway they can take without these qualifications, Trought said.

“They don’t really think it through. It’s important for people to be self-aware of what they’re good at.”

Villa Education Trust’s Alwyn Poole said the drop in students gaining university entrance shows that New Zealand’s schooling system, in terms of effectiveness and equity, is a disaster.

University entrance is the best check of the effectiveness and fairness of the entire school system and is a game-changer for young people by providing access to tertiary study and increasing the range of choices they have after leaving school, he said.

In 2018 for students from Asian families 65.4 per cent left school with UE (67.4 in 2017), for those from European families 43.9 per cent left school with UE (44.7 in 2017), for students from Pasifika families 21.9 per cent left school with UE (22.4 in 2017) and for students from Māori families 18.6 per cent left school with UE (18.6 in 2017).

Female school leavers achieved UE at 45.7 per cent in 2018 and Males at 33.3 per cent.

The ministry’s only explanation for the worsening stats is that maybe a few students are leaving earlier to get a job, Poole said.

“Education is unlike wealth – most people do not correct earlier failings and accumulate more over time.

“New Zealand’s young people need the whole of our society to be urgent about this.

“And yet very little, or nothing is being done, and virtually no one has taken notice that we pushed a whole lot more children off the cliff and into adult life with an inadequate education and very few choices for their future of work.”

The Ministry of Education’s 2018 school leaver attainment data contains a range of different measures of senior secondary school attainment, including NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3 and University Entrance Award as well as retention for students aged up to 17.

It also includes attainment for 18-year-olds, vocational pathway awards and information on students’ tertiary education destinations.


  1. Regarding the quote by Mr Trought – it is not accurate to say that “most people leaving school early are going into apprenticeships not jobs”. Firstly, an apprenticeship is an arrangement with an employer – they have a job. Secondly, of all school leavers, just six percent enter formal traineeships or apprenticeships immediately following school, which is disappointingly low given the advantages of earning and learning and avoiding student debt. Many more school leavers do go straight into employment, but not with an employer who provides training through the formal system leading to NZQA qualifications. Again, the ideal situation would be to support young people to employers who are participating in the formal education system and will continue to invest in their skills and qualifications, in preference to those that don’t.

  2. Disturbing to see an experienced careers advisor making an ill-informed comment like this: “Most people who are leaving school early are going into apprenticeships, not jobs.”

    You can’t have an apprenticeship without a job, and people who complete apprenticeships have excellent employment outcomes.

  3. It is disappointing to see this comment from a careers advisor. All career influencers should be fully aware of what an apprenticeship is and what a valuable pathway it is for an individuals future. We should be celebrating and supporting students who make this pathway choice as well as the employers who provide these opportunities.


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