Schools met the challenges in many ways

What follows are examples of how schools overcame some of the challenges presented by their size, location or community pressures. These are followed by examples of schools that have not yet overcome some of the challenges they face with NCEA. Some schools appear in both categories and no school in the sample has overcome all the challenges identified above. A reminder that the schools named are fictitious; their profiles developed from a range of sources.

There is no one way to develop curriculum and pathways

Smaller schools are often seen as less able to offer an extensive curriculum. Resourceful leadership finds ways to extend the range; widening choices and vocational opportunities. Some larger schools were more able to place a priority on providing an extensive range of courses tailored to meeting students’ interests and preferred vocational pathways.

The examples below demonstrate innovative solutions are possible:

Providing a curriculum that meets students’ needs and interests

Haumata College, with its small roll and isolation, can only offer a limited number of senior classes with a specialist teacher. Online distance learning enables students to access other subjects such as languages. 

Teachers support students in their online learning and they transport them to offsite tutorials that build their understanding. They regularly monitor student progress in these subjects or courses.

One teacher has built strong relationships with local industries and employers that are used to strengthen student learning for vocational pathways.

Several schools, including Manuka College, use varying combinations of internal and external standards within a subject. For example, in English, students are offered a choice of a course based on their interest in Heroes and Villains or English in the Pacific. The assessment standards applied in each of these courses are similar so there is no disadvantage to students in the choice they make.

The success of NCEA is the flexibility of courses. We can customise courses for interests and abilities.


Nikau College collaborates with neighbouring secondary schools to provide summer schools to widen the range of subjects available to students, such as barista training, Māori travel and tourism, and a services academy. It is also currently trialling an integrated curriculum across Years 9 to 13 in a few courses. This is deliberately planned with the intent to challenge and ‘disrupt’ the teachers’ current pedagogy so they are motivated to improve practice.

Different definitions of success

Some schools measure success as achieving an outcome that benefits each individual student, refusing to buy in to having their effectiveness judged against their NCEA or UE achievement rates compared to those of other schools.

It’s all about what works best for the kid. Our school compares itself to itself.


The following examples illustrate how schools’ focus on success for all students can impact the schools’ overall NCEA results.

Putting students’ needs first can come at a cost to a school

Horoeka and Harekeke Colleges refuse to have their success measured by NCEA passes achieved. Their priority is “better outcomes for kids” (Principal). These schools offer students wide curriculum choices that reflect their interests and needs, including a significant number of vocational pathways.

If a suitable opportunity for an apprenticeship or employment arises, they encourage students to take it up, regardless of whether they have completed all their NCEA credits for Level 2. For the student and the school this is success, but it diminishes the schools’ NCEA results. In 2017 this approach reduced Horoeka College’s anticipated NCEA success rate by 15 percent.

While these are the only secondary schools in their provincial towns, students are still able to access other secondary schools in neighbouring towns and cities should they choose to. However, both schools have healthy rolls and support from their local communities.

Students transferring schools can ‘spoil’ NCEA results

The ‘70 day’ attendance rule’ means students must have attended their new school for a minimum of 70 days before their NCEA results are attributed to that new school. Students who transfer often do so, so they can follow vocational pathways not available at their old school. When they achieve success, their results are not attributed to any school if the ’70 day’ rule applies. This disadvantages schools with a clear focus on accepting transferring students to follow appropriate vocational pathways.

Manuka College leaders feel confident their community values both vocational and academic course achievement. Many parents and students value trades careers. This reflects the community where significant numbers are employed in both trades and professional occupations. The school’s focus is to support students to find and follow an appropriate pathway into employment, further education or training. Appropriately, not all students achieve UE, nor do all students stay through to Year 13 and complete Level 3. Some could wrongly interpret the school’s NCEA and UE results as not serving their student population well.

Accelerating Māori student achievement

Some school leaders are proactive in raising expectations for Māori students’ achievement. They reject deficit thinking with its consequent danger of Māori students being channelled into less challenging pathways and so not being given the opportunity to realise their full potential. They promote and support initiatives that raise both staff and student aspirations for this group of students.

The college below provides initiatives successful in raising Māori student achievement.

Raising expectations for Māori students

Harekeke College has a mentoring group specifically to support Māori students and guide their pathway choices. It also has a partnership with a university that provides an additional mentoring group, meeting weekly and focused on encouraging students to participate in the sciences. Because of these two initiatives, there has been a significant increase in the number of Māori students taking the sciences at all NCEA levels and succeeding.

Teachers and leaders have high expectations for all students. A Year 12 Māori student told ERO his course included accounting, economics, academic English, maths options and te reo Māori. He had thought to take hospitality ‘as a break from the academic subjects’. However, knowing this student’s personal drive to gain excellences, his dean advised him to take food and nutrition instead, suggesting the course would be more satisfying for him. The student followed the advice and is enjoying the course.

Is student workload a problem?

ERO found many different and often opposite views about student workload. Some adults and students alike believe the workload was manageable and students’ attitude to the assessments was the problem. Others felt the load was an important motivator for students to keep learning. There were differences in how internal and external assessments were viewed.

Some students, particularly those who follow the university pathway, thrive on academic challenge.

Endorsements are motivating. Without that I would slack off.

Externals are a better way to assess the higher academic students and you need externals for endorsements.


However, many students identified issues.

I want to learn how to write an essay – not rote learn one for an external.


Some students clearly prefer gaining their credits during the year.

Internals and project-based assessments prove that you can apply the learning.

Internals are a plus in as much as you can put in as much time you want to get the grade that you want.


The challenge for schools is to monitor students’ programmes to make sure the workload is appropriate and manageable for the individual, and assessments are coordinated between subjects and spread appropriately throughout the year. Most schools grapple with this with varying degrees of success, but they provide support for students who are not coping well with NCEA pressures.

The examples below illustrate the complexity of the issues schools face.

Managing student workload and stress

When school leaders at Kōwhai College tried limiting assessments students attempted in each course they faced resistance from heads of curriculum areas, students and parents. This was not uncommon across the schools in this work.

Counsellors and students presented differing views on the amount of stress NCEA aspirations placed on students.

A student from Horoeka College said

You have to use your time in class wisely and if you do then the workload is manageable.

By contrast the counsellor stated

NCEA is not a stress in itself, but for students who are already stressed it adds another burden.

At Harekeke College the counsellor and pastoral leaders said that while the pressure for some students is relentless, some of the stresses are attributable to students’ own expectations for high achievement across a large number of credits; many more than required to attain the certificate.

Staff at Harekeke College also commented they had noted a tendency for boys to manage this pressure by choosing the easiest course. This in turn created issues for boys not achieving at the level of girls and they were worried how it might play out for the boys in the longer term.

In contrast, one girl, who gained 158 credits at Level 1, stated she had not felt any particular pressure in achieving this result.

Support for students can have positive and negative outcomes

Almost all schools visited provided students with strong mentoring and support to meet their learning and wellbeing needs.

Mentoring is the key to learning. It has provided deeper learning relationships between staff and students.


However, this has presented some challenges in achieving a balance between providing students with the appropriate level of individual support to be successful learners while also developing their independence as self-managing learners.

The perceived needs of students for support often differed between different types of schools. A greater level of support was often provided in lower decile schools to help students better manage pressures they faced in their lives outside of school.

Below are two contrasting approaches and a cautionary note:

Developing self-managing learners within a supportive environment

Haumata College is a small rural school, with many courses taught online, through distance teaching. Students in this environment must manage their own study and this increases their independence as learners. The school considers that students who go on to tertiary education from Haumata College are better prepared to take responsibility for their own progress than students in city or private schools.

This contrasts with the situation at Nikau College where students are very closely monitored and supported to achieve success. Their teachers identify that, as a result, many students have not developed the independence necessary for success at university.

Pastoral leaders at Rātā and Pōhutukawa Colleges identified their students were not well prepared for tertiary education. Students often expect the same assessment practices and opportunities as provided in internally assessed NCEA standards. University assessment practices come as a shock.

At Uni, deadlines are deadlines. A grade is a grade.


There are limitations to parents and whānau involvement

Many schools commented on a lack of parent understanding of NCEA. This meant parents and whānau could not fully support their teens through NCEA and help them to make appropriate decisions for course and pathway choices. Many students told ERO their parents have little or no input to their NCEA course choices because of this. The students make such decisions themselves with support from the school. Students also stated that generally schools allow them to have the final say on subject choices. Sometimes this can be detrimental to students’ success as choices may not lead to higher level study or follow a clear pathway. In some cases, schools advise students to take courses that do not challenge them, so they can be assured of gaining credits for certification. School results will also look good.

The schools below are examples of schools that have addressed this issue and developed meaningful partnerships with parents and whānau.

Successful partnerships with parents and whānau

Manuka College prioritises consulting with parents and keeping them informed about their student’s learning.

Parents are part of the decision making. Shutting doors is not an option.


The school surveyed parents about their aspirations for student learning and achievement, informed by the school focus on providing meaningful pathways for students and reducing the number of credits offered in senior courses.

Parents receive frequent updates about student progress through the student management system, “regular real-time data sharing” and five-weekly interviews that review the student’s progress towards achieving their credits.

Manuka College has also revised its careers programme and the location of the careers area, using extra board funding. This has resulted in an increase in the number of students and parents visiting this area frequently, with parents and students better informed and able to make useful decisions about pathway choices.

Nikau College, which has high numbers of Pacific and refugee parents, uses a translator at meetings with parents to help effective communication.

Schools struggling to meet the challenges

Pedagogy focused on learning?

Even within schools with courageous leadership, variability may be evident, particularly regarding the quality of pedagogy. Effective pedagogy can lift a student’s interest in a particular subject so they are motivated to pursue further knowledge and learning rather than just gain credits. Schools successful in raising the quality of pedagogy have often done this through a whole-school focus on professional learning in this area. This requires a significant commitment of time and often financial resourcing.

It is worth noting that some of the most telling quotes in the examples came from students, who showed themselves to be very perceptive about the impact of NCEA on their learning.

It is the role of the teacher to inspire kids to learn the content, understand and apply it. Some teachers say just learn this to regurgitate.


The example below indicates the challenges even schools with courageous leadership face in dealing with this issue.

Credits or learning?

Students at Harekeke College said they believed school was

more about gaining credits than the learning.

They spoke about being encouraged by teachers to rote learn essays in English, history and te reo Māori for regurgitation during assessments even if they lacked the skill or understanding to write their own essay.

The students were however able to recognise pockets of good practice within their school.

My accounting teacher does a really good job of real learning. He says we are a business not a class, so we learn to make decisions as in a real business.

Another student appreciated her history teacher spending the whole term on the Russian revolution even though only a portion of this learning contributed to credits. Some of her classmates were worried because there was no assessment and wondered

What’s the point if we’re not going to get credits?

Students contrasted the real learning they had experienced in Years 9 and 10 with the credit focus from Year 11 onwards. They characterised Year 11 as

learning that doesn’t stick with you.

Privileging specific success impacts on school funding

Competition for students, and hence funding, is a particular challenge for schools when there are choices of schools in a community. Many parents judge the success of a school by its success in NCEA; in particular, passes gained at each level, endorsements and the number who achieve UE are seen as indicators of school success. Unlike some of the schools in the previous section, most of the schools below allow such community perceptions to influence the curriculum they provide rather than developing a strong partnership with parents to help them understand what real success is for their teenager.

These schools consider ERO and the Ministry both contribute to this unintended consequence with their expectations for ‘good results’ in NCEA and UE.

The schools below illustrate the impact that accepting community perceptions of success can have on the curriculum provided for students.

Reinforcing community perceptions

School resourcing is based largely on the number of students who are enrolled. Nikau College, Pōhutukawa College and Ngutukākā College told ERO many parents judge a school by the NCEA league tables, and competition between schools for students can have a negative impact on a school’s curriculum. Some parents and students perceive a hierarchy of subjects with those contributing to UE being ranked highest.

Many schools have not yet harnessed the potential of NCEA for designing courses for meaningful pathways.


At Harekeke College students spoken to by ERO referred to non-academic subjects as ‘drop kick’ subjects.

Consequently, some schools continue to provide senior courses for which there is very little demand. At Nikau College only 15 percent of their students go on to university, but the academic subjects receive a much larger share of resourcing than the number of students taking them would justify. This results in larger classes at junior levels and a reduced range of vocational pathways available for the majority of students.

Unethical practices embellish achievement statistics

A further consequence of this competition for students is that

NCEA creates a level of dishonesty both within and between schools.

Some schools adopt practices that are ethically untenable to enhance their NCEA results, or, in particular, the statistics that will appear in the media. These practices actively work against student success as it is perceived in Horoeka and Harekeke Colleges.

One of the examples below provides an example of a college where a new principal was faced with a prior history of unethical assessment practices.

When assessment is not fair, rigorous or reliable

Ngutukākā College is an example of a school that to a greater or lesser extent had ‘worked the system’ so their overall results looked good and gave them an edge when competing for students. Some examples of inappropriate practices included:

  • requiring students to sign a contract at the start of the year, acknowledging that if their attendance dropped below 80 percent, they would not be allowed to attempt external NCEA assessments
  • persuading senior students not doing well to sign out – ideally after the July roll return
  • only entering students expected to pass an Achievement Standard
  • teachers offering more than one resubmission and lowering the standard for awarding a pass
  • ‘credit farming’, especially at the end of the year, by allowing students to gain sufficient credits to obtain NCEA but with no coherence or associated pathway for those students.

Senior leaders at Pōhutukawa College raised concerns about students newly enrolled from other schools with NCEA endorsements that did not have the understanding required for that level of high achievement. Similarly, they found it hard to understand how a student, previously struggling at achievement level, gained a Level 3 excellence in a standard he took in a summer ‘catch up’ programme in a subject he had never studied before.

A related challenge to providing a rigorous and fair approach to assessment is the lack of staff expertise and experience in some schools, and particularly with moderation in the smaller schools. One school visited sought to address this challenge by sharing moderation with colleagues in other schools. The downside of this was a lack of timeliness in feedback to students.

Mixed views on changes to Level 1 NCEA

Many of the leaders and staff who spoke to ERO had thoughts about the suggested changes to NCEA Level 1. Attitudes towards these proposals were ambivalent. Many acknowledged what they considered to be the current unnecessarily high assessment load for students at this level. They also identified the impact of this in narrowing the curriculum earlier than necessary. On the other hand, many also recognised that, particularly for less able students, early success with appropriately chosen credits, boosted student confidence and paved the way for ongoing success in NCEA.

Some leaders and staff expressed reservations about the proposal that a student research project be part of assessment requirements at Level 1. They wanted more detail as to what it would entail and how it would benefit students’ learning. They cited their current lack of staff expertise to monitor and assess such a project as a potential barrier. A counter viewpoint was that such learning could be far more relevant to students and capitalise on their interests.

In project-based learning you have students who say they can see the purpose of this in the real world.


Some common themes from TEOs

ERO visited three TEOs and the observations that follow are based on that small sample. Provision of programmes under the Youth Guarantee scheme, including Trades Academies and Dual Pathways, result in clear links between NCEA programmes in schools and students’ learning in the TEO. The TEOs visited set out to maximise the opportunities NCEA provides for students. A commonality of experience and practice was evident across the TEOs, much more so than across schools.

Leadership matters

The impact of courageous senior leadership in the TEOs was less directly obvious but not necessarily less significant than in schools. The size of the organisations meant senior leaders had greater administrative responsibilities than leaders in schools. Distributive leadership and responsibility for learning was exercised at a variety of levels within the organisations and at campuses across the country.

We come up with a fully developed proposal, which we present to senior management and if they believe it stacks up, we get the go ahead.

Programmes meet student needs

Programmes are student-centred and adapted to meet students’ needs. Programmes are generally more flexible than those in many schools and have open entry.

Tutors know how you learn and adapt to you.


They often provide termly modules without prerequisites. The chance of a fresh start each term is seen as a motivator for many students.

Students have faster success.


Courses are carefully planned to meet students’ individual needs and reflect local employment opportunities. Literacy and numeracy are an integral part of most courses. Students can later move to more academic options if appropriate.

Vocational Pathways must be flexible enough for students to have the option of gaining NCEA Level 3.


Assessment is an integral part of the learning pathway

These organisations are often catering for students who have become disengaged from school. Tutors state that Mondays can be difficult with the challenge of refocusing students after a heavy weekend.

Tutors provide hands-on activities, in real contexts, that highly engage learners. TEOs’ approach to assessment is very different from that in many schools. Assessment does not drive the learning, rather it is a natural part of the learning pathway, not an end in itself.

The qualification is not the goal. The pathway to employment is the goal.

This was particularly evident in Rural Training TEO below.

Assessment an integral part of the learning

At Rural Training, assessment takes place within real contexts and is repeated over and over in work-type situations.

We put the focus on learning skills - not offering 10 easy catch-up credits. Students are so focused on learning that they often aren’t aware they are being assessed. They don’t do the fence knot just once to be assessed, they build the fence with many knots.


A smaller proportion of the assessments involve written tasks but as these are based on practical experience students find them less threatening. They do not experience the same relentless pressure from assessment many students do in secondary schools.

Skills and employment, not credits, are the priority.

Success is any learner who leaves with more skills than they came in with.


The TEOs use a variety of assessment tools, including NCEA, National Certificates, and Vocational Pathways Awards. They demonstrate an expertise in the use of Unit Standards and NCEA in Vocational Pathways, and maintain expectations for rigorous assessment practices across all sites. Tutors are held accountable.

TEOs perceive that programme approval from NZQA can be slow and hampers their ability to respond appropriately to students’ needs. TEOs believe the development of new Unit Standards following the Targeted Review of Qualifications (TRoQ) has been slow and an additional source of frustration for them.

Meeting the needs of Māori students

Many of the students in these TEOs are Māori. For example, 42 percent of the students attending Rural Training were Māori. All TEOs have a clear focus on enhancing opportunities for Māori students. They demonstrated a clear commitment to providing an environment responsive to their cultural diversity. They acknowledge they are still working towards this goal and are proactive in strengthening their practice. They provide opportunities for staff development in this area. One TEO has developed a Kaitakawaenga6 role. The Kaitakawaenga has a strategic responsibility for developing staff cultural awareness across the multiple campuses. This TEO also has a separate position with full responsibility for monitoring and supporting Māori students, particularly in the residential environment.

Partnerships with hapū and iwi

The Rural Training TEO has developed partnerships with a kura kaupapa Māori and a hapū. The TEO provides students from the kura with six-week, block-course programmes spread throughout the year. Students learn practical skills on their hapū land, related to employment opportunities in that region. The kura supplements the courses with contextual, in-school learning that includes the history of this hapū land and other aspects that provide a Māori context for the practical learning.

At another of its campuses the TEO supported the “the agribusiness succession planning of local iwi”. The TEO saw it had a role in providing young people with the knowledge and expertise required to take over the leadership roles on iwi farms in due course.

Focus on student wellbeing

Student wellbeing is a high priority for all TEOs. Students are provided with a variety of support services, including counselling, and careers advice. One TEO had a careers department advising and helping to place students in employment. All TEOs have aspirations to provide wrap-around support within the constraints of their resourcing. In some cases this included providing lunch for the students.

The focus on student wellbeing is enhanced by a close learning partnership between tutors and students, described as being more ‘an auntie/uncle relationship’ than a student/teacher one.

Tutors are more chilled than teachers were.


This is helped by the small number of students in learning groups.

Relationships with schools are not always helpful

TEOs valued strong partnerships with their contributing secondary schools. They attempt to maintain a close relationship with the schools and keep them informed on students’ progress.

In some cases, these relationships do not support the student as well as they could. Some schools kept students well after they became disengaged and could have benefitted from transferring to the TEO. Some did not provide useful information, including achievement data, about the students.

TEOs believe some schools see TEO programmes as a ‘fill-in’ for students who do not fit into their curriculum. By contrast, the TEOs see the need to select those students who would benefit most from vocational pathway programmes. Parents were sometimes an obstacle if they did not appreciate the place of TEOs in learning and the alternative pathways they offer.

Resourcing complicates provision

The funding and resourcing models for the TEOs are complex. Different issues were raised at different TEOs. One identified having to access its funding via a Trades Academy as challenging as the allocation to them had meant cutting student places, and the transition to Level 3 has become more difficult.

Continual changes in funding without evaluation of effectiveness makes it difficult to build capacity in the administering organisations or determine which model works best for students.


TEOs provided courses for students still at school and described this as ‘a loss leader’. The goal was to attract full-time enrolments when the students left school.

Some food for thought – are we doing right by our students?

ERO used data7, provided by NZQA to explore patterns of NCEA use across schools with some interesting results.

ERO found that on average (mean) the proportion of Achievement Standards and Unit Standards used in schools is 68 percent and 32 percent respectively. However, across New Zealand secondary schools the mix of Achievement Standards and Unit Standards used varies. High decile schools are far more likely to use Achievement Standards and assess them externally than low decile schools.

Figure 1 Differences in the ways schools use Achievement Standards

This image contains two graphs.

This information prompts several questions:

  • Why is there such a difference across schools by decile?
  • Are schools making the right choices about NCEA assessments to best demonstrate student success in their learning?
  • Do the choices made for students limit their future learning pathways?
  • Is it fair to compare the results of each school?

ERO posed some provocations for those involved in education to consider:

  • How does the use of NCEA support or compromise best learning practices?
  • What is important for students to learn?
  • What do we value as success in learning?

Where to from here?

ERO’s research shows that NCEA can be an effective tool to support, assess and formally verify student learning.

When this is the case leaders and staff ensure they:

  • value learning above credit acquisition
  • integrate assessment into learning pathways
  • place their students’ interests first
  • refuse to buy in to league tables as a measure of success
  • act to mitigate students’ workloads
  • provide their students with a suitable range of vocational pathways that lead to further education, training or employment.

The common themes and profiles8 provide an opportunity for deeper understanding of the impact of the assessment system on schools and TEOs, and the complexity of challenges experienced by schools and TEOs when using NCEA.

The challenge for the review of NCEA is to find ways to refine NCEA so that secondary schools and TEOs are encouraged to implement it effectively. It should be only one way of demonstrating learners’ progress, and should not compromise the learning needed to fulfil our vision for them.

Our vision is for young people:

  • who will be creative, energetic and enterprising;
  • who will seize the opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies to secure a sustainable social, cultural, economic and environmental future for our country;
  • who will work to create an Aotearoa New Zealand in which Māori and Pākehā recognise each other as full Treaty partners, and in which all cultures are valued for the contributions they bring;
  • who, in their school years, will continue to develop the values knowledge and competencies that will enable them to live full and satisfying lives;
  • who will be confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.

The New Zealand Curriculum (2007)

6 The term translates from te reo Māori as a mediator or arbitrator.

7 The data used here refer to NCEA Level 2 and are sourced from the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, valid as at March 2018.

8 See Appendix 2.