Priority learners are groups of students who have been identified as historically not experiencing success in the New Zealand schooling system. These include many Māori and Pacific learners, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, and students with special education needs.

Their “success in education is essential to the Government’s goal of building a productive and competitive economy...[and helping them develop] the skills needed to reach their full potential and contribute to the economy and society”.[1]

National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) data indicates a worrying gap between the achievement of Māori and Pacific learners, and New Zealand European learners.[2] In 2011, 77 percent of Year 11 Māori students, and 79 percent of Year 11 Pacific students achieved Level One NCEA Literacy requirements, compared to 91 percent of New Zealand European students. A similar picture is painted for the Level One NCEA Numeracy requirements, with Māori and Pacific students’ achievement in 2011 at 81 and 84 percent respectively, compared to 93 percent for New Zealand European.[3]

The heartening news is that Māori and Pacific student achieveme nt is improving. This is particularly encouraging given that more of these learners are being retained in the senior secondary school system.[4] Nonetheless, too many priority learners are leaving school without the qualifications they need to enjoy economic security and contribute to New Zealand’s economic growth. We owe it to these learners to make school a place in which they experience success.

The Government’s goal[5] is that by 2017, 85 percent of 18 year olds will have attained NCEA Level Two or equivalent qualifications. This is the level of achievement that is deemed to equip students sufficiently to participate in employment and society in a productive and successful manner. Identified in Government policy are key levers that will have the biggest influence on improving their achievement – stronger teacher accountability for improving students’ learning, information that is available to make appropriate decisions for and about students, and effective teaching. ERO has also identified through its own national evaluations that these factors are critically important for raising students’ achievement.

If the 85 percent goal is to be achieved then a concerted effort is needed at every level in the schooling system to provide high quality teaching that accelerates priority students’ achievement, and curricula that fosters their engagement in learning. A culture of responsibility for students’ learning and wellbeing, and accountability for making a difference, must be the foundation on which all schools operate.