In 2012 the Government set out its priorities for education as part of Better Public Services. Under the heading Boosting skills and employment the Ministry has set the following targets:

  • 85 percent of 18-year-olds will have achieved NCEA Level 2 or equivalent qualification by 2017
  • 55 percent of 25-34 year olds will have a qualification at NCEA Level 4 or above.

To achieve the NCEA Level 2 target New Zealand schools must significantly increase their current levels of achievement. In 2012, 74.3 percent of school leavers achieved NCEA Level 2 (or equivalent). The Government has put in place a range of initiatives to support the achievement of secondary students. This includes the work connected with Youth Guarantee, Trades and Service Academies, and Secondary Tertiary Programmes (STPs).

In September and October of 2012, 16 schools worked with the Ministry of Education to identify a target cohort of Year 12 students who, without additional support, were unlikely to achieve NCEA Level 2 in 2012. The Ministry indicated that schools should target students who were likely to fall within 20 credits of the NCEA Level 2 requirements.

Schools were encouraged to find their own, local solutions to lift achievement for these students. In essence, schools were challenged to ‘find a way’ to respond to the individual circumstances of each student in their target cohort.

This approach differs from many other initiatives in its emphasis on ‘solutions for each student’. Many other initiatives designed to improve student achievement operate from the school-wide perspective first, with the intention that school practices will subsequently develop to meet the needs of students.

The achievement results from across the 16 schools linked to this ‘focus on the individual’ are encouraging. They show that out of the 311 target students 189 (61 percent) achieved NCEA Level 2 in 2012. A further 31 percent of students returned to school in 2013. Eight percent did not gain NCEA Level 2 and did not return to school. A total of 64 percent of the Māori students, and 62 percent of the Pacific students, gained NCEA Level 2 in 2012.

These numbers suggest that schools have made a difference for some students. Many of these students who were targeted because it was judged that they would not achieve NCEA Level 2 in 2012 without additional support did, in fact, gain the Level 2 qualification.

It is difficult to quantify the impact of this work on student achievement. Whatever schools put in place for this initiative cannot be separated from other initiatives already underway in these schools – for example: He Kākano,[2] Positive Behaviour for Learning[3] (PB4L) and Starpath.[4]This is also the reason that this report concentrates on the good practices observed by ERO.

The school-wide NCEA achievement information also suggests that there has not been a clear increase in the overall levels of achievement at the target schools. In considering the NCEA Level 2 data from 2010 through to 2012, for students in years 12 and 13, only five of the schools showed an overall lift in achievement. Six of the schools showed little change in their school-wide NCEA achievement and, in the remaining schools, achievement decreased slightly.

Another complicating factor is the inconsistency across schools in the students who were targeted. Some schools selected only students who were likely to fall within 20 credits of achieving NCEA Level 2. Other schools selected students who were likely to miss achieving NCEA Level 2 by more considerable margins. Some of the schools also dropped one or more students from the target cohort and did not include their numbers in the final count of students who did or did not achieve NCEA.[5]

A few schools were focused on improving the achievement of cohorts of Year 11 (NCEA Level 1) students, while also selecting some students attempting NCEA Level 2. This focus on Year 11 students completing NCEA Level 1 was a priority for these schools before Ministry of Education involvement. These schools saw NCEA Level 1 as a gateway to success at higher levels. As one staff member reported: ‘The change in attitudes once they have tasted success is remarkable.’