Secondary schools in NZ

Secondary education is for children in years 9 to 13, which is usually when they are between 13 and 19 years old. Your child might go to secondary school (sometimes referred to as college or high school) or your child might be at composite school or middle school that goes through to the secondary years.

Does my child have to go to secondary school?

Yes. In New Zealand your child must either be enrolled in school or kura or be homeschooled between the ages of 6 and 16 years:

  • 6 to 16 years old - school is compulsory
  • 16 to 19 years old - school is optional. Around this time, young people gain National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) and transition to further education, training or a career

In New Zealand, parents are legally required to make sure that their child goes to school every day the school is open, unless they're sick, or need to be away with good reason, for example for an appointment or tangi. Under the Education Act 1989, parents and carers of children between 6 and 16 years old can be prosecuted if their child is away from school without a good reason.

If your teenager does need to be away from school, make sure the school knows ahead of time. Usually you will need to phone the office to let them know your child will be away, the reason why and for how long.

If your child will be away for more than a few days, you may need to put this in writing. It's also a good idea to talk to the teacher about getting some school work for them to do so.

What are the main differences between primary and secondary school?

Starting secondary school or kura can be an exciting and challenging time for your child. Here are some of the main differences they will need to get used to:

  • they might be in a completely new school environment with a lot of new people - classmates and teachers
  • they will have to go to different classes in different rooms with different teachers throughout the day. They will be responsible for knowing their timetable, being in the right place, bringing the right books and gear with them, and being on time
  • they will be studying different subjects. Secondary school offers students more subjects such as languages and science subjects.
  • they will have different options for sports, arts and other activities
  • the school day is usually longer – 8.40am to 3.20pm is typical for secondary hours. Check with the school, as each can have different hours
  • they will have more homework
  • there might also be practical changes like a different school uniform, different transport, and a change in what they do before and after school.

Who’s who at the secondary school? Who do we talk to?

Secondary schools and kura have different teachers and support people available for your child and for you. Here are some of the kinds of support you can get:

The form teacher is with the class for the school year, and gives out daily notices and takes the roll. The form teacher will usually be your first contact if your child has any problems or issues they need help with

Subject teachers teach the subjects on offer at the school or kura, such as mathematics, science or languages. The Head of Department (HOD) or Head of Faculty (HOF) oversee subject teachers

The dean provides support and academic guidance to students. The dean is a good person to talk to if you have questions or concerns about your teenager that can't be addressed by the form teacher

Careers advisors help students prepare for work or tertiary education with information about things like jobs, tertiary course requirements, and scholarships

Guidance counsellors are there to help students and parents with personal matters like stress and bullying

ESOL teachers support students for whom English is not their first language

Learning support teachers support students with learning difficulties or special abilities

NCEA liaison teachers have an overview of NCEA results and can help with questions about things like missing assessments, financial assistance, and credits not being recorded accurately

The principal is the escalation point if you don't feel that an issue has been dealt with. Parents and students can contact a principal directly if they want to. The principal might then refer you to another member of staff.

Some schools have health services staff for students. Some have a full health centre with GPs and nurses, and some have social workers. Check with the school to find out if they have these kinds of services available.

What are the choices for secondary schools?

Where your teenager goes to secondary school will depend on where they live and their interests and needs. Most secondary students in New Zealand go to government funded state schools, but there are also state-integrated and private schools.

State schools

Most New Zealand secondary schools are state schools. This means they:

  • are government-funded, so do not charge school fees (but you might have to pay other costs)
  • teach the New Zealand curriculum
  • teach mainly in English. There are also te reo Māori and bilingual state schools.

Within the state school system there are various options depending on a child's age, your language and culture, values and religious beliefs.

State-integrated schools

State-integrated schools used to be private but are now part of the state system. Their buildings and land are privately owned, so they usually charge compulsory fees called “attendance dues” to meet property costs.

Private schools

Private (or independent) schools charge fees, but also receive some funding from the government. They are governed by their own independent boards and must meet certain standards to be registered with the Ministry of Education. They don’t have to follow the New Zealand Curriculum but must follow a learning programme of at least the same quality.

Other choices

If you live too far from a school, if your child has health issues or special requirements, or if you want to educate your children at home, there are also these options:

  • Te Kura (which is also known as the Correspondence School)
  • regional health schools
  • special schools
  • homeschooling

Find out more about these different kinds of schools in New Zealand.

When are the schools open and when are the holidays?

The school year is divided into 4 terms, with a two-week break between them. There is also a six-week summer holiday break. Most schools follow the same term dates, but there is some flexibility for schools to work around local events and anniversaries. The Minister of Education sets the number of days and half days a school must be open each term. Schools are closed on public holidays.

School term and holiday dates for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017

Schools can be closed during the term

A board of trustees can also close a school for:

  • teacher-only days (professional development and planning)
  • in-service training days (when several schools combine for training)
  • local gala or show days

If a school closes for these reasons, it must ensure that the school is open for instruction for the prescribed number of days or half-days.

A board of trustees may close a school at any time because of epidemic, flood, fire or other emergency.

Ministry of Education explanatory notes for term dates and holidays

Teacher only-days

On teacher-only-days schools are closed to students and you need make other arrangements for your teen if you are working. The school should let you know in advance so you can plan for this.

School hours

Generally the secondary school day runs from 8.40 am until 3.20 pm. Schools do have flexibility about this, so check with your teen's school for their hours.

Some schools are open for longer hours for before- and after-school care.

Do I have to pay?

Education in state schools in New Zealand is free. Other kinds of schools do charge fees. And all schools can ask parents to pay for extra activities, and to support the school by paying donations. Donations are voluntary.

You will also need to pay for things like stationery supplies and school uniforms.

See Costs and financial assistance to find out about fees and charges or what to do if you’re not happy about the cost.

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