Education in New Zealand

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Education Expenditures: 6 percent of GDP (2020 estimate); ranking compared to other countries in the world: 42. [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

Literacy: total population: [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

School Life Expectancy (Primary to Tertiary): total: 20 years; male: 20 years; female: 21 years (2020). [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

There were about 2,000 primary schools and 350 secondary schools in New Zealand in the 1990s.

School Life

New Zealand uses the English education system. Secondary school students take two important exams: The School Certificate exam in their third year and the University Entrance and Busary exams in their forth year. A new exam system is being introduced in 2001.

The school year is divided into four terms of equal length (it used to be three terms but was changed after studies showed that students worked better when they had more breaks).

The New Zealand school year last from February to December. Students have a two week holiday in May, a one week mid-term break in July, a two week holiday in August and September and a Christmas and Summer Holiday beginning in mid December and ending in February.

Correspondence education, to provide instruction or people in isolated parts of the country, has been a key element of New Zealand education. There are also special schools for physically and mentally handicapped children.

Education and Minorities

Maori children make up 20 percent of student enrollment. They and other Pacific island minorities generally perform more poorly than whites on national exams. In one international study, the test performance gap between minority children and white children in New Zealand was greater than any other country studied.

Many white middle-class parents send their children to private schools or take advantage of a nationwide open enrollment policy that allows them to send their children to public schools further away with mostly white student bodies. This has meant that Maori, Tongan and Samoan children get concentrated into the lower quality schools.

Whole Language Reading Method

One of the greatest contributions made by New Zealand to the world is the "whole language reading method," highlighted by distinctive "Little Books" that often have as few as eight pages and feature stories that are so simple that children don't have to read the books to understand them. The idea behind the Little Books is that children will harness their own curiosity to look at them and figure out how to read on their own.

The Little Books hit the United States during the height of the "child centered" education fashion and became a big hit there. As of 1998, over 85 million books were sold in the United States and 185 million had been sold worldwide.

The effectiveness of the method seemed to bear itself out when New Zealand students placed first in the world in an international reading test in the 1980s. But by the late 1990s, many educators were questioning the method. In a 1996, New Zealand students had fallen to sixth place in international reading tests. Moreover, 8 out of 10 high school students in some parts of Auckland were classified as illiterate and 9 out of 10 working class children were three grade levels behind in their reading level. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

Many educators now regard the whole language teaching methods as ineffective. They argue that some drilling and guidance is necessary and children need practice associating the sounds with words and reading aloud.

University Education

New Zealand has seven universities, 25 polytechnics and several education schools. University students generally only pay about a quarter of the cost of their tuition fees (the government pays much of the rest) and are given housing and living cost subsidies if they need them.

Nearly a quarter of all New Zealanders have completed some sort of post-secondary school education. And today, 40 percent of all secondary school graduates continue their education.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New Zealand Tourism Board, New Zealand Herald, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2023

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