Many New Zealand students achieve well at school. International assessments such as PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS reflect the high levels of achievement by some New Zealand students. Conversely, these international comparisons also show high levels of disparity between our highest and lowest achievers. While many Māori, Pacific and students from low socio-economic backgrounds are among those who achieve well, there are high numbers who are not.
New Zealand’s education system is focused on improving the achievement of its students. As part of the Government’s Better Public Services goals the following target has been set for achievement across the education system:
In 2012, 77.2 percent of 18-year-olds achieved NCEA Level 2 in 2012, compared with 74.3 percent in 2011. The percentage of Māori 18-year-olds with NCEA Level 2, or equivalent, increased from 57.1 percent in 2011 to 60.9 percent in 2012. The percentage of Pacific 18-year-olds gaining NCEA Level 2 increased 2.6 percent to 68.1 percent. 
The Ministry of Education has reported that at 77.2 percent:
… the NCEA Level 2 achievement rate for 2012 means the Government and the education sector is on track to achieve the Better Public Services target for 85 percent of 18-year-olds to have achieved NCEA Level 2, or an equivalent qualification, in 2017.
A key aspect of the Government’s efforts to raise NCEA achievement is the emphasis on vocational programmes for secondary students, especially through the Youth Guarantee scheme. For example, the vocational pathways tool helps students identify the skills and qualifications they need across five broad employment sectors. These five areas are:
The Youth Guarantee scheme also includes secondary-tertiary partnerships (Trades Academies), and the fees-free scheme, which provides one year of full-time study for 16 and 17-year-old students in vocationally focused training programmes.
In September 2013, the Government announced an extension of the Youth Guarantee scheme to all 18 and 19-year-olds. Foundation courses (Levels 1 and 2) will be fees-free for 20 to 24-year-olds.
In this evaluation ERO investigated how well 74 secondary schools were preparing students for future opportunities in education, training and employment. The report’s findings raised fundamental questions about the responsiveness of secondary schools. In particular, ERO found that most New Zealand schools are not showing the levels of innovation required to ensure that all learners have suitable pathways to future education, training and employment.
Ten schools showed high levels of responsiveness to individual students, through their academic, careers and pastoral systems but these schools had relatively low proportions of priority learners. Schools with relatively high levels of priority learners were generally less responsive and did not have the careers, pastoral or curriculum approaches to support high numbers of students to gain qualifications and access suitable pathways.
The educational and social context of these schools was a factor in why many struggled to respond to individual student needs and aspirations. Staff at these schools were often overwhelmed with the range of needs presented by students. A focus for these schools, and the Ministry of Education, is on helping priority learners gain access to high quality education, health and social services.
In this evaluation ERO also found across the schools only a limited number of innovative options in academically focused courses. Few schools, for example, had attempted to develop academic courses that spanned two or more curriculum areas. There were very few academic courses specifically aimed at improving outcomes for Māori or Pacific students. Similarly, ERO found some schools were specifically encouraging Māori and Pacific students to take vocationally-based courses.
In this project ERO reported on the work of 13 schools which had, to varying extents, put initiatives in place to raise NCEA achievement. This work was focused on target groups of students who were identified as being at risk of not completing their NCEA Level 2 qualifications. The primary focus for this work was on NCEA Level 2, in line with the Government’s target of 85 percent of 18-year-olds achieving NCEA Level 2 in 2017.
The report identified a range of good practices that supported student achievement, including:
The report also identified a series of challenges that all secondary schools need to consider when attempting to improve their NCEA achievement. These include the need for schools to provide credible pathways for students, and not just focus on acquiring credits. It also discussed the need for schools to build a sustainable, whole-school focus on supporting students – through their pastoral, curriculum and careers systems – rather than leaving student support roles in the hands of a few staff.
The report emphasised the need for secondary schools to go beyond a focus on students achieving NCEA Level 2 and to understand the broad context of student achievement, particularly in Years 9 and 10 when students are developing the core skills they need to succeed.