New Zealand School types explained

There are different types of schools in New Zealand that you can choose for your child and there are also other options than mainstream schooling. Let’s explain.

Cluey Learning Monday, 16 August 2021

Getting to grips with the NZ education system can be a challenge for any parent, but just like when we were at school ourselves, it all comes down to understanding the various terminology.

In New Zealand, by law all children aged 6 to 16 years must either attend school or be educated at home. Most children start school when they turn 5. There are 13 ‘Years’ in the New Zealand school structure, with the year indicating how long a child has been at school.

However, the New Zealand national curriculum is not strictly tied to year, level, or age. Curriculum levels represent a stage of learning and recognise that each student’s rate of learning is different. Students’ progress from one level to the next when they are ready, that is when they have achieved the skills, knowledge and understanding required for each level. This means that class teachers may be teaching students at several different levels.

Schooling is divided into three stages — Primary, Intermediate and Secondary. Schools are also classified in New Zealand as either co-educational, co-ed, or single sex. A co-ed school caters for boys and girls, whereas a single-sex school caters for either boys or girls only.

Primary school: Years one to six
Children start school at primary school usually aged five.

Some primary schools go to year eight, so that the children do not attend a separate intermediate school.

Intermediate school: Years seven and eight
After primary school, children attend an intermediate school for two years before secondary school.

High school (also called college or secondary school)
Students attend secondary school from Year nine to Year 13. They can leave secondary school before reaching Year 13, but usually not until after their 16th birthday.

School hours, terms and holidays

The school day usually starts at 9am and ends at 3 or 3:30pm.

The school year starts in January. There are 4 terms in a year, with 2-week breaks between them and a 6-week summer break at the end of the year.

  • Term 1: late January to early April — then a 2-week break
  • Term 2: May to early July — then a 2-week break
  • Term 3: late July to late September — then a 2-week break
  • Term 4: mid-October to mid-December — then a 6-week summer break

Who runs the schools?

With the Ministry of Education ultimately responsible, New Zealand schools have a head teacher or principal, a deputy principal, and they normally also have experienced teachers that act as ‘deans’ or ‘heads of house’ for each year level.

Schools may also have heads of departments for different curriculum areas. Schools also employ support staff including administration and teacher aides. Secondary schools have school counsellors who take care of the student’s wellbeing.

All schools are governed by a school board consisting of elected parents as well as the principal and other staff and at least one elected student representative. Private schools usually have a board of trustees, but they are free to choose another method of governance.

School boards are responsible for adhering to specific legislation around school governance. They are responsible for various decisions such as:

  • setting the strategic direction and targets for the school
  • planning towards and reporting on achieving those targets
  • curriculum management
  • financial and property management
  • policies and procedures
  • health and safety
  • employment of staff

Types of schools

There are three main types of schools in New Zealand.

  1. State schools which are owned and funded by the government.
  2. State integrated schools which are government funded but may also charge compulsory fees.
  3. Private schools which charge set fees for a term or year.

Plus there are other options available depending on a parent and childs preference or circumstance such as Homeschooling, Kura Kaupapa Māori, Specialist schools and Alternative Education.

Read on for a breakdown of each school type available.

State Schools (also known as Public Schools)

Most New Zealand children attend state schools (also known as ‘public schools’).

State schools are funded by the government. This means all education is free for children with New Zealand citizenship up to 19 years of age. There are some extra costs to parents such as school uniforms, stationery, exam fees and some course-related costs.

Parents are usually asked to pay or contribute to learning experiences outside the classroom, such as school trips, school camps, sports events, or any type of activity that is not strictly part of the school curriculum.

State Integrated Schools

Around 10% of New Zealand children currently attend state integrated schools.

State integrated schools are schools with a ‘special or designated character’. This might be a particular iwi tradition, language or culture, or a particular educational philosophy -such as Steiner or Montessori.

Education in state integrated schools is also funded by the government, but the schools also charge compulsory fees — also known as ‘attendance dues’.

Private schools

Just under 5% of children attend private schools.

Some private schools take both boys and girls (known as co-educational or ‘co-ed’ schools). Others are single sex schools for either boys or girls. Some private schools are boarding schools, with boarding facilities so students can live there during the term.
Private schools are not government funded – they charge set fees by the school term or year. The schools may offer scholarships for example sporting or music scholarships. Again, these vary by school.


The Ministry of Education considers applications for homeschooling for children aged between six and 16. Approval depends on evidence that the child will receive regular learning at least the same level as if they attended a school.

Kura Kaupapa Māori

There are also State schools where teaching is done primarily in te reo Māori where the schools aims, purposes and objectives reflect the Te Aho Matua philosophy.

Find out more about Māori medium education here.

Specialist schools

Day specialist schools offer specialist teaching to students who have a high level of need. They teach students from Years 1-13. As well as having a base school, many day schools have satellite classes. These classes are in regular schools so students can get the specialist teaching they need in a regular school environment.

Residential specialist schools (RSS) are for students with educational needs that are complex and challenging which usually relates to vision, hearing, socialisation, behaviour, or learning.

If your child is unwell and can’t go to school for a long period of time, teachers from regional health schools are available. They can teach children from Years 0-13.

Alternative Education

Students aged 13–15 with behavioural difficulties, or who are alienated or disengaged from school, may be able to enrol in an Alternative Education programme or an Activity Centre.

Alternative Education programmes are funded by the Ministry of Education and are linked to a particular school. The student stays on the school roll, while being taught in small groups in a different setting. The school oversees the programme and is responsible for the student.

Activity Centres provide alternatives for students exhibiting “at risk” behaviour. They are places where students can have “time out” and then return to regular secondary schooling.

If you are totally new to the New Zealand education system, joining a school’s parent/teacher association as a volunteer could be a great way to help with school activities and meet the parents of other children who may be able to help answer all your questions. For more information, you can also check out:

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