Your child is about to go to Primary School and you’d like an overview of the what, how, when, whys.  Read our Primary School System Overview to find your answers.

What is Primary School?

Primary school is a school that provides education for 5 – 12 year olds. This is where some of you may become confused. The majority of primary schools in New Zealand cater for children aged 5-10 years of age. These are called Contributing Schools. At age 11 they then move to Intermediate School. A school that provides for children ages 5-12 years is called a Full Primary School.

You may have heard the terms ‘Junior School or Syndicate’ and ‘Senior School or Syndicate’ used to talk about the different age groups at primary schools. The ‘Junior School’ refers to students in Years 1, 2, and 3, while ‘Senior School’ refers to the remainder of the school, Years 4, 5, 6 and possibly 7 and 8 depending on whether the school is a contributing or full primary school.




1 – 6

5 – 10

Contributing school

         1 – 3

      5 – 7

       Junior syndicate

         4 – 6

       8 – 10

       Senior syndicate

7 – 8

11 – 12

 Intermediate school

 1 – 8

 5 – 12

 Full Primary school

         1 – 3

       5 – 7

        Junior syndicate

        4 – 8

        8 – 12

      Senior syndicate

Primary school runs five days a week, Monday through to and including Friday. The school day usually begins about 9:00am and finishes about 3:00pm with breaks (intervals) at mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon.

How is a primary school run?

The Board of Trustees

State primary 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 the management of the school’s finance, property and grounds. Most board members are parents or community members who are elected or appointed. The board has regular meetings and must listen to what other parents want.

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 child.

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 every day. They determine what is taught on a daily basis and how they will teach it. It is also the teacher’s responsibility to manage behaviours within the classroom and to care for your children during the school hours. All very important jobs!

School administration staff

The school secretary, office administrator or team of people are 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.

Does my child have to go to 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.

It is possible to home school children in New Zealand, however, parents must apply for an exemption for this before the child is 6 years old. You can find out more about this on our home schooling page.

All children in New Zealand, except foreign students, are entitled to attend school free from their fifth birthday.

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, classroom name or 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 does the class structure work?

Gone are the days of referring to your child as being in Primer One, Standard Two, Form Three and so on. New Zealand schooling has adopted the term ‘Year’ when referring to where a child sits in terms of their school ‘career’. It is also called year structure.

A child who starts at primary school for the first time between July and 31 December, and who is aged between 5 and 6, will be classed as Year 0. The school roll is counted in July for Ministry of Education purposes and that is why July is the cut-off point.

Children who begin school for the first time between 1 January and before the July roll count will be classed as being in Year 1. The use of Year levels continues right through to secondary school where a student who continues through school till graduation point may finish their schooling at Year Thirteen.

Even though most children start school when they turn five, it is not compulsory for them to attend until they reach age six. Children who start school after the age of six are automatically placed in the same year level as other children his/her age.

How will my child be learning at school?

At primary school children are taught in a variety of situations and learning environments.  For the most part they will be based in one classroom with one teacher.  It is important for a routine to be established with the children so they have an understanding of what to expect, how each day will work; what occurs and at what point during the day. This is why most teachers will begin the day with mat time and move onto printing, maths or some other subject. Classes will also have scheduled library days, physical education (P.E.) days or sessions, and students will in most cases have their own ‘news’ or ‘show and tell’ day.

There may be opportunities for classes to join with others for some activities, meaning your child may be taught by more than one teacher at some point.

In the classroom, children learn as a whole class.  Primary is structured this way because group activities help children learn vital social skills like sharing and working co-operatively.  There will be times when your child will work alone on projects to encourage independence.

Class sizes at primary school will vary depending on the school your child attends. Generally classes are smaller in the junior school, years 1, 2 and 3.  In their first year of school it will not be uncommon for your child to be in a class of up to 25 students. Again this is just a guideline.  For more precise information on class size at your child’s intended school, phone and ask someone there.

What will they learn?

What our children are taught at 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.

At primary school there are seven core subjects taught to children in one form or another. The two most essential and heavily catered for subjects are English (literacy) and Maths (numeracy).  It is important for our children to be literate, to be able to read and write, and to have good numeracy skills.


To be literate is to have the ability to understand, respond to and use language that’s needed and valued in the world we live in. This means being able to listen and speak with others and then, beyond that, being able to write and read.


It is important that our children learn and develop mathematical skills, as they are relevant to every aspect of life.

Children need to learn three main mathematical process skills

  • Problem solving,
  • Developing logic and reasoning and
  • Communicating maths ideas

The other five core subjects they’ll be taught are: science; technology; social studies; the arts; and health and physical education.

Attitudes and values are also an integral part of the New Zealand Curriculum.

Through their learning in and out of the classroom at primary school your child will be encouraged to develop good attitudes towards things, ideas, or people and especially learning. They will be taught that their attitude to something is reflected in the way they behave or act towards it.  Obviously positive attitudes should be encouraged at all time.

Values are also an important part of what a child will learn at school. No schooling is value free and so the New Zealand curriculum reflects values that are supported by most people in most communities. These values include honesty, reliability, respect for others, respect for the law, tolerance, fairness, caring or compassion, non-sexism, and non-racism.

For more information on what your child will learn at primary school, see Core Subjects.

Will my child be given homework?

While it is not compulsory most teachers will give students homework in one form or another. Homework is given for two reasons at primary school level –

  • to reinforce the teaching and learning that has been taking place in the classroom, and
  • to help students develop special skills, such as independent research.

Your child may be required to do homework in the form of

  • Reading
  • Preparing for their ‘news day’ or ‘show and tell’
  • Spelling words
  • Printing/writing practice
  • Researching a topic that may be the class focus at present.

Homework is an important part of education and should be ‘sold’ to your child as such.  It teaches children to work independently, encourages self-discipline and responsibility, and encourages a love of learning.  There is nothing better than witnessing the pride a child feels when they manage to read their book well or get all their spelling words correct!

It is important for you as a parent to be vigilant about your child doing homework. This may challenge some of you as much as it does your children.

For more information on how to help your child with homework, see Role of Parents.

What will my child need to take to school?

Obviously a school bag is a given, and this can often be a really great 5th  birthday present idea. This school bag should be big enough to hold the following things :–

  • A lunch box that can hold morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea,
  • A drink bottle,
  • A library bag,
  • A book bag for your child’s ‘reader’ or any homework,
  • A jersey – should it be taken off during the day,
  • Shoes – these are often discarded during lunchtime, and
  • A raincoat

Who should be my first port of call at the school?

This depends on what it is you want to discuss.

My child’s progress or anything that occurs in the classroom

The best person to go to about these issues is the classroom teacher. They will have the first hand knowledge of your child and what has been occurring during the day, week and so on.

The best time to catch up with the teacher is in the afternoon. Often teachers are busy in the morning readying things for the day ahead and will be unable to give you the attention you need.

Things that occur in the playground

If you have a concern about a one-off occurrence, your child’s classroom teacher will be able to help you with who was on playground duty that day and where to find them.

If you are troubled by continuing occurrences the best thing to do is speak with an Assistant or Deputy Principal about playground policies and so on.

You’ll be able to find the appropriate person by asking at the school office.

Events that are going on around the school, administration, fees and so on

Again the school office is the place to go. The administration team will have their ‘finger on the pulse’ and if they can’t help you directly, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.

What will it cost me?

The cost of your child’s education at primary level will depend greatly on whether or not you choose to send your child to a state, integrated or independent school.

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, then 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, then you may be entitled to financial support. Visit Working for Families for more information on Family Assistance.

Integrated Schools

If you choose to 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 per child.

What are the term dates for primary schools?

The Ministry of Education states that primary schools must be open for at least 394 half days each year.

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

The terms are worked roughly 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 mid-December

You can find information about exact dates for the school terms on the Ministry of Education website www.minedu.govt.nz/NZEducation.aspx. You can also phone your local primary school to ask about dates.

We live a long way from the school, how will my child get to school?

If you live a long distance from the primary school your child is enrolled in and there is no public transport available for use, then your child may qualify to use a school bus service or get financial help for transport.

There are criteria that need to be met. Your child must –

  • be over 5 and be enrolled in a state or state integrated school,
  • live more than 3.2 kilometres from the nearest appropriate school if under 10 years of age.

Students with special education needs also receive help with transport arrangements, usually in the form of taxis.

The Ministry of Education contracts bus operators to provide the service to around 100,000 children each year. About another 10,000 students receive transport allowances because they cannot use a school bus or need to travel a long distance to do so.

For more information about criteria or transport services visit www.minedu.govt.nz/goto/schooltransport .

I have to work full time, what about before and after school care?

If you are a parent who works full time you may be anxious about the fact that school generally begins at 9:00am and generally finishes at 3:00pm, while you may work 8:30am – 5:30pm. If this is the case you will need to think about before and after-school care. The government and related agencies refer to this care as OSCAR – Out of School Care and Recreation.

As with Early Childhood Education, there are several services from which to choose:

School-run care

Most schools these days run before and after-school programmes for their students. Parents drop their children at a central point in the school in the morning and they are cared for before school starts. After-school children are often picked up from their classroom when the bell goes, then take part in a variety of activities, including homework, and, in most cases, are given afternoon tea.

The administration staff at your child’s school will be able to give you information if the school runs after-school care.

Care provided by outside services

In most regions there are commercial after-school care services being run. There are privately run services, as well as services provided by the likes of the YMCA and Barnardos.

For more information on OSCAR see Out of School Care and Recreation.


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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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Hi there, my boy will be 5 the 19th of December but he is very speech delayed and needs grommets put in his ears. We are thinking about starting him at school when he turns 6. Im just wondering if we do that will he be in year one or 2 when he goes?
Im in nz thanks

Jarrod Rendle

Hi Jolene. There’s nothing wrong with starting your child at school at the age of 6, or any time between 5 and 6. It’s likely they will start in Year 1, but that’s really irrelevant. Most schools these days have a combined Year 1 and Year 2 class. And the children are broken into groups designed around skill levels, not ages. Your child’s teachers will help to determine the best groups for them to fit into over the first few years of schooling. Best of luck with your child’s speech development, you’ll find once they get to school their development… Read more »

Nicolas Osborne

Hi there, we are relocating to NZ in December and I am not sure what year my son will start school in. He will be 8 in November and is currently in Grade 1 in South Africa. Thanks very much.


Hi Nicolas. If your son had started school in New Zealand when he was 5, he’d have started with the Term 4 cohort in Year 1, and in most cases continued in Year 1 for another 4 terms. So your son should start in Year 4 for the entire year that he’s 8. Contact your primary school to find out, but I’d imagine they’d put him in with the current Year 3 students in December. That way he’ll be with the same kids when they all start Year 4 in Feb 2018. — Jarrod

Nicolas Osborne

Thanks for the reply Jarrod, appreciate it.

Julie Okunola

I have two daughters. The first was 9years on June 3rd while the second was 4years on March 19th. We are moving to New Zealand by February ending 2018. Please which school year will my daughters fit in.


Hi Julie, your first daughter will start in Year 6 from February 2018. As her birthday is in the first half of the calendar year, she would’ve started school here in Year 1 when she turned 5 in June. She would’ve had 6 months in Year 1 before moving on to Year 2. Your second daughter should start in Year 1 straight away in February (she won’t have to wait until March). Just double-check with the school that you enrol with that they have the new ‘cohort entry’ system. This means children start together in cohorts at the beginning of… Read more »

Lilian Robbie

Hi there we are relocating to NZ in December and I am totally confused in relation which school year my child needs to start in NZ he will be 10 years old on 11 of November. He is in year 4 in Australia now, thank you for your help.


Hi Lilian, your son should be in Year 6 when he starts school here in Jan/Feb 2018. The reason for the confusion is that kids usually start school in New Zealand at the age of 5, whereas it’s 6 in Australia (so children here who turn 5 in November would usually start school for a couple of months in Year 1, and continue on in Year 1 after the Christmas break for a full year). Hope that helps — Jarrod.


We currently are schooling our 9 year old male child at a Steiner school, NZ, his birthday early Dec. We are looking at state school education and all changes in regards to relocating him. He has been held back due to being “at the time” new to Steiner education. So is currently at year 3. Due to Steiner Ed, starting with year one at 6yr old, he is in the eldest in his year, with next year up, being the year 4, with students already 10yrs old for a most of the year. If he were to switch to mainstream… Read more »

Rabbil Bhuiyan

Hi, I have plan to move in year 2018 January as an international student. i will take my family with me. Then my son would be six years plus. His sixth birthday would be in July 2017. What level of school he might get.


Hi Rabbil. It really will depend on the school. Technically he’d be in Year 3 if he started school when he turned 5 in 2016. There may be a mixed Year 2/Year 3 class at the school he’ll be attending, in which case he’ll start in that class, and the teacher will assess his ability from there. Otherwise he may start in a Year 3 class, and again the’ll assess how he goes. Really it does depend on the school though, and how their classrooms are set up. Have a great time studying in New Zealand! — Alayna


How old do children need to be to board? Auckland 9

Neila Finlayson

Hi we are relocating to New Zealand in November. My son is 13 years old. His birthday is 28th March 2013. What year will he go into in New Zealand?

Amanda Vaughan

If he starts school this year and has a reasonably strong educational history, he will probably go into Year 9 (the first year of high school) for a few weeks. Schools here tend to finish around 15 December. He would then start Year 10 the following year. He will be one of the younger students in his year, and some students his age might be in the year below.

Neila Finlayson

Many thanks Amanda Vaughan for your very clear answer. It is very much appreciated.


How many days a year do the kids go to school?


Am I within my rights as a parent to ask, for my child, not to be taught by a particular teacher?


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