The 35 schools in this evaluation were at different stages of implementing Vocational Pathways.

Most of these schools were aware of the programme, although the level of familiarity within schools was variable across school leaders, teachers, students and whanau. Careers staff, or those in an equivalent position, were most often the champions of Vocational Pathways in schools. They were using Vocational Pathways with students when they were selecting courses or seeking careers advice.

The extent to which others in the school were aware of and saw the value in Vocational Pathways was determined to some degree by the level of influence the careers staff had in the school. Support from school leaders was crucial to implementation of the pathways. In particular, innovation and moves toward increased curriculum relevance occurred where curriculum leaders had a good understanding of the potential of Vocational Pathways.

In most cases, Vocational Pathways were functioning as an add-on to a traditional curriculum model. The broader aims of providing relevant and authentic learning contexts responsive to student interests were only beginning to be realised in a few of the schools. These schools were finding that taking Vocational Pathways seriously meant reconsidering aspects of curriculum design and structural aspects of the school like the timetable and the division of subjects. Most were only beginning this process, but had shifted their thinking towards a pathways approach.

Using Vocational Pathways to support students

Careers education and course selection

The most commonly visible use of Vocational Pathways was in course booklets. At a basic level, some schools included information about Vocational Pathways as a separate page in their booklet.

At a more developed level, other schools were using the Vocational Pathways rosette, or Vocational Pathways colouring to show which of the courses and standards they offered could contribute to progress along one or more of the pathways. Some examples are included in Appendix 2 of this report.

Vocational Pathways posters were also displayed around the school, particularly in careers departments. The strong, consistent, visual design of Vocational Pathways material contributed to student recognition and awareness.

In a 2012 evaluation, ERO found considerable variability in how careers education is provided in New Zealand schools. In most schools evaluated, careers education operated through the efforts of careers staff as an addition to the school's curriculum, rather than as an integrated component of it. A few schools were pursuing more innovative, school-wide approaches.1

Similarly, the current evaluation found that awareness and use of Vocational Pathways was often limited to careers staff. Careers staff provided students with information on Vocational Pathways to help guide course selection, or used the Profile Builder with students to show how their achieved or proposed credits could contribute to the pathways.

Less commonly, other staff such as deans or mentors had spoken with students about Vocational Pathways or used the Profile Builder. Some schools had integrated Vocational Pathways into form class time.2 The example below shows how one school involved multiple teachers and staff in using the pathways with students to support course selection:

Each Year 11 and 12 student is mentored on their choices as part of a one hour per week programme with the careers administrator. Deans, teachers, senior managers and careers staff are all involved in helping with this subject course selection. Students are encouraged and supported to use the online graphs to check how they are proceeding along any pathway.

The teachers involved in student choice selection feel strongly that using the pathways helps students make relevant choices.

(Hornby High School, Christchurch)

In some schools, Vocational Pathways were helping students to see how their courses were relevant to future career options by providing opportunities for contact with tertiary educators or people employed in the industries. At one school students reported that they were more convinced about the need for NCEA qualifications after hearing the message from a polytechnic tutor.

Vocational Pathways were mostly used at the senior secondary level when students undertake their NCEA qualifications. A few schools were introducing students to the pathways earlier, in Years 9 or 10, so that students would be familiar with them by the time they reached Year 11. One school was looking at extending awareness of the pathways to the local primary school.

 Photo of kids and teacher with a quad bike

Vocational Pathways Awards

In a few cases, the opportunity to gain a Vocational Pathways Award was a motivating factor for students. Students who may not have experienced success previously were energised by what they could achieve.

"I've never seen kids so enthusiastic - ‘Can you help me get these credits?

I need them for my endorsement.' - They love it."

(HoD Maths, Hauraki Plains College, Ngatea)

One teacher related the story of a student who had shifted from being very disengaged and feeling unsuccessful, to being "on a mission”, focused on getting her Primary Industries Award. This motivation extended beyond NCEA Level 2. The same teacher noted that many of her other students had also raised their aspirations as a result of finding the learning they were passionate about, and now aimed to achieve University Entrance.

Some schools raised the profile and status of the awards by presenting them at assemblies, sending a clear signal that this learning and achievement was valued. A specialist classroom teacher at Flaxmere College, Hastings, said that students loved the certificates they received, and noted that students could "leave with pride - having made some steps towards whatever they choose.”

At some schools, however, leaders and teachers reported that most students did not know much about the awards. Awareness of the nature and purpose of the awards was also variable among whanau, and a few school leaders felt that it was particularly low among local employers. Signalling to employers that students have developed relevant skills and knowledge for their industry is a primary purpose of the awards. Employers' lack of knowledge of the awards undermines their usefulness. Some schools were working to address this through parent information evenings or other forums where they engaged with local employers. 

Valuing all career pathways 

"It's not if you're smart, it's how you're smart."

(Principal, Hauraki Plains College, Ngatea) 

Traditionally, schools have valued, taught, and assessed for a set of skills associated with university education, while other skills and talents have been less well recognised and rewarded. Two schools that were implementing Vocational Pathways well were using them to build equal status between traditionally academic options and more vocationally-oriented ones.

The Principal at Hauraki Plains College was well aware of, and wanted to counter, the perception that more vocationally-oriented courses were easier options than academic ones. Student projects within the Construction and Infrastructure, Primary Industries and Creative Industries pathways, showing evidence of students' complex skills and knowledge, are visible around the school grounds. The school has also started to present a 'best product' award at the end of the year, alongside the traditional academic Dux award.

At Flaxmere College, the same commitment to valuing diverse skills and forms of knowledge was evident. Students were achieving success in Creative Industries, Services Industries and Construction and Infrastructure. One teacher related how things had changed in her lifetime:

"I left school without University Entrance. I felt dumb. Our kids don't. We are archaic if we think university is the only option for our kids. Vocational Pathways have opened that doorway."

(Specialist Classroom Teacher, Flaxmere College, Hastings) 

The college was taking particular advantage of the Creative Industries standards to provide a clear pathway for students who were passionate about traditional Maori arts and culture through well-attended and popular courses in Whakairo and Mau Rakau.3   Students at the college spoke of how the recognition of their skills in these creative pursuits had given them a sense of pride in their learning.

Photo of kids sitting around the table drawing

Towards curriculum change 

Most of the schools in this evaluation were using Vocational Pathways as an add-on to their traditional curriculum approach, usually through the efforts of careers advisers. Used in this way, Vocational Pathways were beginning to help students to make appropriate subject choices and to see how their learning related to future education and career opportunities.

A few schools had explored further the intent of Vocational Pathways and were increasingly finding that taking a pathways approach had implications for the school curriculum.

Leaders in these schools identified a tipping point at which they realised that taking the pathways seriously meant that they needed to consider how their curriculum implemented relevant learning, and supported a pathway approach.

Tipping point

"It's too easy to say it's just a tack on. You can squeeze the system a bit harder, but you only get so much improvement before you need to change."

(Principal, Paeroa College) 

At Flaxmere College, the Deputy Principal in charge of curriculum said that Vocational Pathways "really gave the curriculum, and how we teach, a kick in the pants.” The Principal at Paeroa College recognised that "if we carry on as we are, we become less and less relevant.” He saw that Vocational Pathways could potentially provide a lot of opportunities, especially for students that did not find the current curriculum relevant. However, this would only happen if it informed some significant review and change.

At Hauraki Plains College, the move toward a pathway-oriented curriculum had occurred independently, in 2008, and so the school was well prepared to make the most of Vocational Pathways when they were introduced. The Principal said they were "building on it, not building from it” and they had greeted the Ministry of Education roll-out of the pathways enthusiastically, saying that they "added value to what we're doing anyway.”

Leaders at these schools saw Vocational Pathways as consistent with, and extending, both the flexibility of NCEA and the intention of The New Zealand Curriculum.


"If you want to excite people, you have to have education for a purpose that relates to their lives." 

(Principal, Hornby High School, Christchurch)

In schools where Vocational Pathways were influencing the curriculum, teachers were increasing curriculum relevance by providing more authentic learning and assessment contexts for their students. At Hauraki Plains College, for example, students in the Primary Industries pathway planned and implemented a redesign of a reserve close to the school, including following the process to submit and gain approval from the local council for their plans. The teacher described this as a "real world problem, and a real solution for the community.” Because of the authentic context, students were engaged even in what the teacher saw as a potentially 'dry' soil unit standard, and student feedback indicated that they wanted to keep it in the course.

Like Hauraki Plains College, Hagley Community College in Christchurch had already taken some steps towards a pathway approach before the development of Vocational Pathways. The college had created authentic learning contexts through their 'schools within schools' approach. These 'schools' are intended to engage students around a particular passion. There are currently 13 schools within the college, including fashion, drama, cuisine, primary industries, early childhood education and care, and mobile app development. The college's schools within schools model exploits flexibility in the timetable, with students able to study after normal school hours or on the weekend. Authenticity and relevance are enhanced by having a mix of adult students and high school age students enrolled, more closely resembling a workplace.

Hagley Community College's internal evaluation showed that these programmes were proving very successful for students. Some students would come in with few or no qualifications and then gain NCEA Level 3 after one or two years in one of the programmes. The Principal was really excited by the lift in these students' aspirations, as many of them then chose to go on to further study.

Pathway approach 

A pathway approach means thinking about curriculum from the perspective of the learner as they transition through their schooling toward future education, training or employment. There are two main components to this: continuity of learning and more integration across subjects.

Schools were considering how their curriculum could support continuity of learning as students transitioned through and beyond secondary schooling. Hornby High School in Christchurch developed a pathway approach focused on continuity of learning. They summed this up by saying: "Start with the end in mind.” Careers advice and course selection all centred around ensuring that students have a pathway that reflects their interests and provides a clear direction to ongoing education and/or employment. Students are helped to choose courses that align to one of the pathways. This requires them to identify what further education or training is necessary for their chosen career. See Appendix 2 for an example of the course selection form for Year 11 students.

Because Vocational Pathways cut across learning areas, some schools were finding that thinking in terms of pathways had implications for the traditional division of subjects. An example from Hauraki Plains College is a collaborative project in media studies where Year 13 students are publishing and selling a lifestyle magazine. Students are excited and engaged by the creative freedom they have to decide on aspects of the magazine's content and style. The project provides an authentic context in which to gain standards from a range of areas, including English, design and photography. The media teacher is working with other teachers to provide continuity of learning and further credits for these students in other subjects too - by incorporating Primary Industries research into one of the magazine articles, and developing a marketing plan for the magazine as part of business studies.

For students to have coherent learning experiences, teachers need to be aware of what their students are learning in other classes. Course content can then be aligned so it is complementary and cohesive. However, in many secondary schools, subjects still operate quite independently of one another. To move towards a pathway approach, leaders have found it necessary to break down these 'silos' and encourage collaboration across departments. This is not necessarily a quick or easy process.

Additionally, and in keeping with the intention of Vocational Pathways, many schools remain reliant on outside providers for their students to be able to achieve sector related standards - whether through Secondary-Tertiary Programmes (STPs), 4 Gateway-funded work placements,5 or STAR-funded courses.6 Collaboration is even more important when student pathways extend across contexts in this way. A 2015 ERO report on STPs highlighted the need for schools and tertiary providers involved in STPs to share information about programmes of learning to better integrate their respective courses for students.7

Students accessing some of their learning outside school has implications for the school timetable. For instance, if students attend a tertiary provider one day a week through an STP, they may miss out on classes scheduled in school for that day. Timetabling presents both an opportunity and a challenge for schools as they move to put in place Vocational Pathways. Flaxmere College and Hauraki Plains College both found that re-thinking their timetable played an important role in supporting the design and implementation of a more relevant, pathway-oriented curriculum.

Photo of girl in front of a display about carpentry

Common challenges and barriers 

The most commonly reported challenges and barriers in implementing Vocational Pathways for schools in this evaluation were:

  • building understanding and buy-in among all staff
  • addressing the issue of equal status for vocational and academic qualifications
  • providing access to sector related standards
  • a perception that Vocational Pathways were only for students at risk of underachievement
  • a perceived disconnect between Vocational Pathways and entry requirements for limited courses in universities.

Many of the schools in this evaluation faced the challenge of building understanding and buy-in among all leaders and teachers. For the pathways to have substantial influence, it was particularly important that school leaders were convinced of their potential value. In many cases, awareness and use of Vocational Pathways was limited to careers staff who were not necessarily able to influence leaders and teachers.

The difference in perceived status between academic and vocational education options is an ongoing challenge. Changing these attitudes will take time, and the shift cannot be entirely driven by schools. Some schools were willing to address the issue, but were finding it difficult to change existing mindsets, which extended to students themselves, as the next example shows:

The school said that students are reluctant to show credits that have been gained through Barista and Retail courses. Students want to do the courses to enable them to support themselves through tertiary study but are concerned that these credits will be negatively perceived by universities and future employers. They are asking to do these courses but don't want the credits. The school sees the need to further educate parents and the wider community.

(A medium-sized secondary school in a main urban area)

Other schools were not so willing to address this perceived disparity. One school was reinforcing the attitude that vocational options were less valued than academic options.

The school community, board and staff still divide the curriculum into academic and vocational, with academic being privileged.

(A large secondary school in a main urban area)

Such attitudes do not provide fertile ground for the implementation of Vocational Pathways.

Another challenge for a few schools was their belief that they were unable to provide Vocational Pathways standards for their students. In particular, schools were less likely to have consent to assess8 from the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) for the more industry-specific, sector related standards. This was heightened in some geographically isolated schools who also felt that they would not be able to arrange access to these standards through other avenues like Secondary-Tertiary Programmes.

Vocational Pathways are very broad and can apply to all students. Almost all career choices have been mapped to one of the pathways, including traditional professional careers such as medicine and law. Some of the careers require university study, while others do not. However, in most schools in this evaluation, leaders and teachers perceived Vocational Pathways as aimed at students who were disengaged from their learning, or otherwise at risk of not achieving. Despite the breadth of careers included, Vocational Pathways were seen as not being for students who were achieving well academically and on track for University Entrance.

Often, schools were using Vocational Pathways primarily with students who were also involved in Gateway, STAR, or STPs. Along with these initiatives, one school saw Vocational Pathways as part of their provision for less able students. Another school saw Vocational Pathways as especially useful for students who find it hard to plan a complete programme of standard NCEA subjects.

Even in some of the schools where use of the pathways was well developed, there was evidence of disconnect between Vocational Pathways and university study. The academic Dean at Hauraki Plains College said: "For university-bound students, Vocational Pathways are off to the side. They are focused more on Merit and Excellence endorsements, rather than Pathway credits.”

Other challenges or barriers identified in a few schools in the evaluation included:

  • arranging timetables to support pathways
  • a belief that the pathways 'pigeon-hole' students too early and are inflexible
  • a lack of digital technology access to enable use of Vocational Pathways tools
  • difficulty providing pathways for careers where there are no local job opportunities
  • a more general lack of curriculum relevance and responsiveness in the school.
Photo of a student (boy) studying at a desk