Secondary school is where students go to be educated once they have completed primary and intermediate school. It is also known as college, high school or grammar school. Students study for five years at secondary schools beginning in Year 9 and finishing at the end of Year 13 (see Year Structure). Students are normally aged 13 years when they begin at secondary school and finish when they are about 18 years old.

Adult students who return to school enter in whichever year the majority of their subjects are in.

There are approximately 440 secondary schools throughout New Zealand. The largest of these has around 2000 students but the average school size is about 1000 students.

Secondary schools operate differently from primary and intermediate school in that students are usually grouped in classes but go to different teachers for each subject they are studying. During the course of the day they may move between a number of classrooms and may not necessarily be with the other students in their home/form class.

The secondary school day is usually about half an hour longer than primary school.

How is a secondary school run?

The Board of Trustees

State secondary schools are run by a group called the board of trustees. The board of trustees leads and manages the school ensuring all the time that this occurs within the law. The board is responsible for setting the goals and policies that will help students at the school receive the best possible education. It is also responsible for the management of the schools’ finance, property and grounds and has regular meetings at which they must listen to what other parents want. The board is the employer of the staff at the school.

The standard membership of a board of trustees for a state school includes:

  • Five parent elected representatives
  • The principal
  • A staff representative
  • A student representative
  • Co-opted trustees (optional)

and at a state integrated school –

  • Two trustees appointed by the proprietor the school
The Principal and Teaching Staff

The Principal and teaching staff are the ones directly responsible for the education at school. They are the experts when it comes to the teaching and learning of your teenager.

The Principal’s role is to manage the day-to-day running of the school. He or she manages the teaching and learning programmes and ensures all of this is carried out to the best of everyone’s ability.

The teachers at a school manage what goes on in the classroom everyday. They determine what is taught on a daily basis and how they will teach it based on the New Zealand Curriculum Framework and The New Zealand Curriculum. It is also the teacher’s responsibility to manage behaviours within the classroom. Very important jobs!

Student Management Staff

There are other roles staff members often take on in a secondary school that are equally important as teaching. Schools may not use these terms specifically but there will be someone at the school responsible for the following things:

Student Guidance

Secondary schools will have ‘Student Liason Counselors’ more commonly known as Guidance Counselors on staff. These people are responsible for helping students fulfill their potential educational and socially at school. They help students reassess situations, look for alternative and develop new skills and strategies to cope with situations they are faced with.

Academic Tutors

The role of an academic tutor is to help students select courses and deal with issues to do with class work and study. A tutor will, in most cases, be responsible for an entire year level.

Careers Tutor

The careers tutor is there to advise students about career paths, to give guidance in terms of subject choice to do with a chosen path and to teach career related skills at all levels.


Classroom and behavioural problems that are no longer appropriate for the classroom teacher to deal with become the responsibility of the deans at the school.

School administration staff

The school secretary, office administrator or team of people is another integral part of schools. There must be someone to answer phones, give out information, keep records and organise the many things that occur in a school at any one time. These people are very helpful, useful people to get to know in a school.

How does the age structure work?

Where we used to refer to the school levels at secondary being Form One, Form Two and so on there has been a change. The year levels are now referred to as just that, year levels.

When your teenager begins at secondary school he/she will be in Year 9, the following year will be Year 10 and so on. The first round of major assessment generally occurs in Year 11 and continues through to Year 13 depending on the school and student.

So here’s the ‘before and after’ view –

Before Now Approx. Age
Form 3 Year 9 13 years (turning 14)
Form 4 Year 10 14 years (turning 15)
Form 5 Year 11 15 years (turning 16)
Form 6 (U.E.) Year 12 16 years (turning 17)
Form 7 (Bursary) Year 13 17 years (turning 18)

Does my teenager have to go to secondary school?


Children are legally required to be enrolled at and regularly attend school between the ages of six and sixteen. If this doesn’t happen then parents, caregivers, whanau, whoever is ultimately responsible for that child can be prosecuted.

All children in New Zealand, except foreign students, are entitled to attend school free from their fifth birthday until the end of the year in which they turn 19, or to the age of 21 for students who have special education needs.

If your child is absent on any given day, where possible you should let the school know. This is especially important where a school operates a system for checking that their students arrive at school safely. You can do this by phoning the school office and telling them your child’s name, class or form number and why they are absent. Some schools may have an automated process for reporting absences. It’s also helpful for the school if you follow this up with a note stating the same things when your child returns to school.

It is acceptable for you as a parent to ask for your child to have time off from school for special reasons such as medical appointments. You are also within your rights to ask that your child be exempted from religious instruction or classes in sex education.

How will my child be learning at school?

The way your child learns at secondary school differs greatly from the way they have till now.

Students are usually grouped in classes but go to different teachers for each subject they are studying as opposed to spending the majority of the school day with the same teacher at primary and intermediate school.

During the course of the day they may move between a number of classrooms and may not necessarily be with the other students in their home/form class.

There are a couple of ways in which schools organize students into classes. Firstly they will be placed within a home/form class.

Home/Form Classes

Students are grouped in a class which becomes a ‘base’ group of students. There are two ways in which they can be grouped and different schools prefer different approaches:

Vertical home/form class

Grouping students vertically means there is a range of year levels within the one class of students. The class will be made up of a range of year 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 students and there may be anywhere from 15 – 30 students in this class depending on role size etc.

Vertical home/form classes are sometimes favoured for ‘peer mentoring’ and ‘pastoral care’ reasons. This format of class allows the younger students a chance to get to know develop relationships with the more senior members of the class. Sometimes there are few other opportunities for this to occur.

If the school does group home/form classes in this way more often than not students will also be grouped in a class that become a ‘base’ class for their core subject learning. It will be a class of students in the same year level as each other.

Horizontal home/form class

A horizontal home/form class is one in which students from the same year level are grouped together. This means that the class will be made up of all year 10 students for example.

Students then attend their core subjects with this class and are only ‘broken up’ when they move to their option subjects.

The home/form class will be assigned a teacher who becomes their ‘Form Teacher’ and whom they align themselves to. This teacher may be responsible for things like

  • following up on absences,
  • receiving any correspondence coming in from home – permission slips etc.
  • keeping up to date on how his/her students are doing academically and commenting on this in reports,
  • contacting parents about minor issues
  • ensuring social aspects of the class are harmonious.


Streaming is a controversial topic, and it has many critics. Some schools choose to ‘stream’ classes academically. It means students are grouped due to their academic ability, so that all those in the class are achieving at the same level.

Students are generally streamed according to assessment results at the end of each year for the coming year. The core subjects – mathematics, English, science and social studies will be used to determine where a child will be placed academically. Individual schools will determine which of these core subjects they choose to use in their streaming process.

Streaming is controversial for a few reasons.

Some believe that grouping the lower academic ability students together will provide them with no impetus to strive for better; that they may then believe they are ‘not so bright’ and not capable of achieving at a higher level. There is also speculation that streaming allows students to slide along and not really achieve anything, especially in the middle streams

There are concerns voiced also about teacher allocation at streamed schools. Critics are suspicious that the ‘higher ability classes’, normally referred to 4A or 6A for example, are given the very talented, experienced, or senior teachers. Advocates of streaming and streamed schools argue that there are no better’ teachers at their schools; that all of their ‘teachers are of a high quality.

Unfortunately reality dictates that all teachers are not equal.

What will they learn?

What students are taught at secondary school is based on the New Zealand Curriculum. This Curriculum is a document that sets down for education providers what our children need to know and be able to do by the time they leave school.

The New Zealand Curriculum has been developed to ensure that all children in New Zealand are catered for in education.

It also recognises that:

  • we live in a highly technological age and students must be prepared to cope with a variety of complex information throughout their lives.
  • children need to be flexible and adaptable as change is inevitable and .
  • students need to be willing to and commit to learning throughout their lives. They need to recognize that learning doesn’t stop when they leave school.

So alongside learning core subjects students are being exposed to situations and opportunities to learn these things.

All schools use the Curriculum as the basis for their lesson and unit planning. Within it is specified that students will be taught core subjects at school. There are seven of these English, maths, science, technology, social sciences/studies, the arts, and health and physical education.

Year 9 and 10

At Year 9 and 10 level students will generally be taught five of these core subjects on a regular basis. These five are English, maths, science, social sciences and health and physical education. The two remaining subjects, technology and the arts, are covered in the option choice students get at this stage. For example your son/daughter may choose to take art and food technology as options.

The subject makeup of Year 9 and 10 is school specific but this is generally the way it will work.

Year 11

It is at this point that students have greater control over the subjects they take at school. Having said this there are still compulsory core subjects that the majority of secondary schools require them to attend.

The wider range of courses available to students from this point reflects the need for them to begin thinking about future careers paths, work and training options.

In general it is still compulsory for students at Year 11 to take English, maths and science as core subjects. It is now the case that schools are able to offer a wide range of ability levels within each subject so there are still choices to be made about what level/qualifications a student wants to take in English for example.

Year 12 and 13

Some schools will still set compulsory subjects for their Year 12 and 13 students. If they do these are likely to again be English and maths of one variety or another. From this point on the subject choice is that of the student.

Pre-requisite course entry may become an issue at this stage. For example a student who has not till this point taken any course related to business studies or economics may not be able take up a specialised subject like accounting.

Schools should provide students and parents with subject choice information sometime within the third or fourth term in order for all the options to be explored. Most schools now also offer option evenings which enable both student and parent to attend and ask questions of relevant teachers about certain subjects, career paths and so on.

There is a reason English and maths continue to feature throughout a student’s secondary school career. These two subjects form the important basis of literacy and numeracy. There is a continuing commitment in New Zealand education to producing New Zealanders that are literate and have good numeracy skills as both of these play a huge part in our being able to function in the wider world.

They also form the basis of University Entrance once a person leaves school to continue their education.

Will my teenager be given homework?

Homework becomes a larger and more important part of school once your teenager reaches secondary school. It is likely that your son/daughter will have homework every school night until they leave college! Daunting?

Homework is set to reinforce teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom and to develop good work habits. Regular homework teaches student’s self-discipline and concentration, reinforces learning that has occurred over the day and prepares students for examinations/assessments.

Most school adopt the philosophy that small amounts of homework set on a regular basis are more valuable to a students learning that larger amounts of homework given out sporadically.

A general rule of thumb in terms of how much homework your teenager can expect works this way –

Year 9 students should expect up to one hour per night.

Year 10 students should expect up to one and a half hours per night.

Year11, 12 and 13 students should expect up to two hours per night.

Check with your teenagers school but there may well be consequences for students who do not complete homework, especially if this occurs on a regular basis.

For more information on homework at Secondary School see Homework.

What will it cost me?

The cost of secondary school education depends greatly on:

  • whether or not you choose to send your teenager to a state, integrated or independent school,
  • what subjects they choose to take in the upper levels of school,
  • whether or not outside of school tutoring/assistance is opted for,
  • sports and co-curricular activities your teenager chooses to take part in.

Here’s an indication of what costs you can expect:

Costs relating to…

State Schools

In New Zealand education provided by state schools is free. The right to free enrolment and free education means that a board of trustees may not make payment of a fee a prerequisite for enrolment or attendance. Schools commonly ask for you to pay school fees or donations which will contribute to the everyday running costs of the school. These are a voluntary payment.

Other costs you may be required to meet are –

  • Activity/Event charges – there may be opportunities for your child to take part in learning experiences that are optional and you may be asked to pay for these. These activities may be class trips, special projects requiring extra resources, music lessons and so on.
  • Learning equipment – you will need to pay for the equipment your child needs in order to learn on a daily basis. This includes books, pencils etc.
  • Uniform – if the school your child attends has a compulsory uniform you will need to pay for this.
  • Others – From time to time you may be asked to contribute items for class projects. This may be a vegetable or two for a class pot of soup or may be a piece of fabric to make a costume.
  • Mufti days – if your child is required to wear a uniform to school they may also have mufti days. Students are asked to make a donation on these days for school fundraising or for a charity.

If you are asked to pay a school donation and are unable to you need to speak with the Principal of the school. If you are unable to meet any other costs of sending your child to school you may be entitled to financial support.  Check the Working For Families website for more information

Integrated Schools

If you choose enroll your child at an integrated school you will be asked to pay what is called an ‘Attendance Levy’ or ‘Attendance Due’. Because the land and buildings integrated schools use is privately owned these schools are able to charge ‘dues’ to meet costs of maintaining their property.

You may also be asked to meet other educational costs such as those outlined in the state school costs above. These are things like activity/event charges, learning equipment, uniform and other learning related costs.

Independent Schools

If you choose to enroll your child in an independent school there will be tuition fees you must pay. The amount of these fees will depend greatly on the school you choose but you can expect them to be anywhere between $5,000 and $12,000 a year.

Subject choice

Some subjects offered at secondary school attract higher ‘activity/subject fees’. This may be because they required specialized equipment or resources or because they require the use of an alternative venue, and hence possibly the need for transport to and fro.

An example of a subject that may attract extra costs would be photography. Cameras, photographic paper, film, chemicals and solutions to do with dark rooms and so on may all be additional costs that you need to meet.

When it comes time for your teenager to choose subjects, ask him/her to request a list of subject related costs. Then brace yourself!

Outside of school tutoring or assistance

There is a real trend towards students seeking help academically from sources outside of their school. This is generally in the form of tutoring from a private run, commercial service or from a teacher who offers their academic services outside of school hours. Costs vary depending on the service you choose but expect to pay somewhere between $25.00 per hour to $45.00 per hour.

Sports and co-curricular activities

These too can attract high cost. Sports for example requires uniforms be bought, specialized equipment in the form of boots, hockey sticks, tennis racquets, team subs, trips to sporting fixtures. Make sure again that you research the costs involved before you agree to the third winter sport!

Discipline at secondary school

Schools should have well set out and organized guidelines and policies on behaviour available to staff, students and parents.

It is important that these guidelines are clear and accessible, especially for the students at the school, they need to know what is required of them behaviour wise so they can conduct themselves appropriately. Students are also more likely to feel safe and secure in a school with good discipline.

Teachers in New Zealand are not allowed to physically discipline students in their care. This means they are not allowed to hit, cane, slap or use their hands or an object in any way to punish.

Instead there are other means of punishing a student. These may include withdrawal of privileges, setting extra homework or keeping a student during lunchtime or after school for detention. The schools’ board of trustees must approve these methods of punishment.

In the case of after-school detention, parents and caregivers should be informed before the student is required to attend the detention.

These punishments are used for ‘lesser’ misdemeanors like repeated disruption in a class, regular flouting of other classroom rules, disrespecting another person or their property and so on.

For more serious offenses students may be stood-down or suspended from a school. To be stood-down means formal removal for a specified period. A student can not be stood-down for more than five days in any term, or ten days in a school year. Following a stand-down, the student returns automatically to school.

If the student is over 16 years of age they may be expelled and not be allowed to return to the school. This would only happen if a student was thought to be behaving in a way that set a dangerous example to other students or was a possible threat to their safety.

Often before a student is expelled they will be placed on suspension. This means the board of trustees formally removes the student from the school until the Board decides the outcome of the student’s actions at a suspension meeting.

Schools must follow a formal procedure if they wish to suspend or expel a student. The school or the Ministry of Education can provide information about these procedures.


Assessment in secondary schools has been through a huge change in recent years. Chances are it is poles apart from the way you were assessed when you attended school “all those moons ago”.

When your teenager brings assessments home or talks about them with you, you may notice that he/she talks about things like ‘achieved’ or ‘not achieved’, ‘assessment guidelines’, ‘formative assessment’, ‘exemplars’, ‘feedback’, ‘resubmitting’ and ‘NCEA’. These are all terms that refer to assessment in New Zealand secondary schools at present.

Here’s some of the assessment basics and ‘need-to-know’s’:

Assessment Guidelines

At the beginning of the year you teenager should be given an assessment guideline for every subject he/she is taking. This will cover what assessment there will be within the subject and when they will occur.

Students should also be given assessment requirements at the beginning of every unit of work that has an assessment attached to it.

Formative feedback

There has been a shift away from using grades and percentages to measure student assessment. Instead teachers now regularly give students formative feedback. This is about giving students an indication on how they are going with the task, where their assessment sits in terms of achieving or not and what steps they need to take next.


Exemplars are pieces of student work which are deemed to be good examples of a certain level of achievement. They show what students are learning in particular subjects or at particular levels of the curriculum. Teachers use these pieces of work to measure their own students work against and to help students understand what they need to do in order to achieve.

Not achieved, achieved, achieved with merit and achieved with excellence

These are terms used to refer to how well the student has done in an assessment task. They replace the A, A+, B, D and so on of old.

Different methods of assessment in secondary schools

There are different methods a school may choose to assess their students by.

Two of these, PAT’s and asTTle are assessment tools used in Years 9 and 10.


PAT’s (Progressive Achievement Test) are used to assess students from Year 3 through to Year 10. They are used to measure a students reading vocabulary, reading comprehension and mathematical ability. This method of testing gives teachers an indication of how their students individually are progressing compared to their New Zealand peers. They can also provide information for teachers about where they need to focus teaching and what students need to learn next.


asTTle (Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning) is a software programme used to assess students’ reading, writing and maths ability from Year 5 through to Year 10. Students results from this testing can be compared over time to chart and measure their progress.

In the senior years at secondary school, Years 11, 12 and 13, NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) is the most common form of assessing students. It is New Zealand’s main secondary school qualification.

NCEA works by assessing students against national standards that are grouped by subject into a course. A course of work will be English for example or maths. If we take the example of English course one step further, it will generally cover standards in reading, writing, speaking, literature, and other skills.

Each course of work will use both external assessment and internal assessment.

External assessment means that the assessment is done by an organisation other than the school. It doesn’t have to take the form of a traditional written exam, though this is the most common form for NCEA. An external assessment could also be an oral exam or portfolio of art work.

Internal assessment is where the students work is assessed by a teacher at the school, and moderated by an awarding body. The awarding body in New Zealand for the majority of qualifications is the NZQA.

A lot of schools now hold information evening for parents at the beginning of the school year. Ask at your teenagers school if this is offered.

(For more information see Secondary > NCEA)

Cambridge Examinations

When NCEA was rolled out between the years of 2002 and 2004, some secondary schools opted to offer Cambridge examinations as an alternative.

The University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) is the world’s biggest provider of international qualifications for students between the ages of 14 and 19. CIE qualifications are recognised for admission by UK universities, as well as universities in the US, Canada, India, New Zealand and around the world.

What are the term dates for secondary schools?

New Zealand secondary schools are required by the Ministry of Education to be open for at least 380 half days in a year.

The New Zealand school year is divided into four terms. Students have a six-week summer holiday and three two-week breaks between each of the four terms.

The school terms roughly fall around these dates:

Term 1 End of January until mid-April

Term 2 Late-April until the beginning of July

Term 3 Mid-July until late-September

Term 4 Mid-October until early- December

For the exact dates, which vary from year to year see the Ministry of Education’s web site:

What is a decile?

A decile is a group into which schools in New Zealand are placed.

Schools are grouped in a way that reflects the average family or whanau situations and backgrounds of the students at that school.

In other words the decile rating a school is given is related to the economic and social factors of the community immediately surrounding it.

There are ten deciles starting with decile one and moving through to decile ten. Around 10% of schools are grouped within each decile, for example there are approximately 10% of New Zealand schools grouped in the decile two category and so on.

Schools in determined to be in decile one have the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds while schools in decile ten have the highest proportion of students from high socio-economic backgrounds.

Deciles are a funding mechanism only and in no way reflect the quality of the education delivered at that school.

(For more information on Deciles see Education Overview > Deciles.)

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Kylie Valentine is a qualified secondary school teacher, trained journalist, and the mum of two fabulous children.

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