Service academies provide military-focused education for secondary students who have had average to limited success at school. Education at a service academy involves academic study, outdoor education and physical fitness, goal setting, leadership and life skills.

This report discusses the performance of 16 service academies funded by the Ministry of Education funded. These are located at 16 predominantly low decile secondary schools across the country. Most have been in operation only since the beginning of 2008. They are staffed by directors, and in many cases by assistant directors, who typically have experience in the military and who are not formally trained teachers.

Service academies are funded for up to 20 students, most of whom are in Years 12 and 13. Seventy percent of the students are male. Eighty percent of the students are Māori or Pacific, which is consistent with the ethnicity of the schools where the academies are located. Different academies tend to have slightly different priorities with some focusing more on preparing students for a career in the armed forces and others focusing more on engaging students who have underachieved at school.

ERO found that most of the 16 service academies provided high quality education and support for their students. The motivation, academic achievement, demeanour and physical fitness of many students had improved greatly through being part of an academy. Changes made by these students were often seen as transformational by whānau members, teachers and the students themselves.

The leadership of academy directors was a key factor in students making social and academic gains. Effective academies had capable directors who established excellent relationships with students and the leadership of the host schools. While most directors were not trained as teachers, their skills as academy leaders included an ability to mentor previously struggling students, help them set goals and demand high standards in students’ discipline and application to learning activities.

In addition to the leadership of the academy and school staff, factors in the effectiveness of academies included the organisation and support of the host school, the contribution of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), the quality of teaching in the academy programme and the supportive aspects of the academy culture.

Common areas for improvement were found across the service academies. Some of these areas were already being addressed. For example work had started to ensure that student learning with the NZDF was reflected in the credits they gained on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). School leaders also needed to ensure that the school-based learning at academies was also assessed in terms of the NQF where applicable.

ERO also identified appraisal, professional development and self review as areas for improvement. The development of these systems should be led by the host school responsible for the service academy. Similarly, host schools could also work with academy staff to develop processes for supporting the exit transitions of academy students. Opportunities exist to monitor the success of the many academy students who return to mainstream to see if the gains they have made are sustained in more traditional education. Exit transitions could also be one of the more important ways in which academies could also build their relationships with parents and whānau.

ERO suggests ways that the Ministry of Education could enhance the work of service academies. This report raises questions about the registration, training and employment conditions of academy staff. Schools’ milestone reports to the Ministry could support academy self-review processes. Moreover, because schools have spent the service academy funding in different ways there is also a need to include financial reports as part of the milestone reporting process.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is difficult for students from some schools to get a placement at an academy hosted by another school. This raises questions for this and other Youth Guarantee initiatives.