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24 things to know before you choose a school

Jun 16, 2016 Schools

Which schools have the best academic performance in the city? What does that really mean? What should you look for at a school open day? Just how do you judge the quality — and the suitability — of a school for your kids?

This article first appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Metro. Photographs by Simon Young.

Read more: The Best Schools in Auckland 2015

Statistics. It’s right to be worried. Statistics are collections of facts, supposedly arranged so meaning can be taken from them. Sadly, despite that clarity of purpose, statistics for schools are among the most difficult collections of facts you may ever encounter. Commonly, they’re misconceived and sometimes straight-out misrepresented. They can be incomplete, irrelevant and incomprehensible. They never give the whole story and sometimes they’re just plain wrong.

The statistical evidence we present on these pages suggests St Cuthbert’s College is the best school in Auckland. It also suggests McAuley High School is the best. And that Auckland International College is too. Our data also highlights the claims to greatness of several other schools, including but by no means limited to: Auckland Grammar, Western Springs, Avondale College and Mt Roskill Grammar, ACG Parnell College, Macleans College and a long list of Catholic schools including Baradene, Carmel, Liston, Marcellin, St Dominic’s and St Mary’s.

The message? There are many ways to calculate excellence.

Moreover, while those schools and others show outstanding achievements of varying kinds, it doesn’t follow that mid-table schools have a dull record. The general standard of secondary education in Auckland is high. If you visit Long Bay College, Northcote College, Manurewa High — and that’s a very brief sample list — you’ll find good things aplenty: exciting curricular and non-curricular programmes, skilled and dedicated staff, engaged students who look you in the eye with a bright confidence.


That last thing, by the way, according to experts such as former University of Auckland professor John Hattie, is the first thing to look for in a school. Why? Because confidence motivates achievement. Also, because eye contact implies a questioning, critically aware, curious mind. And, don’t forget this, because eye contact signifies a lack of fear. A school where the kids walk around with their eyes averted is quite possibly a school that has failed to control bullying.

So, go to the school and look at how the kids look at each other.

Scoring points: McAuley High School.


The top student in the elite Scholarship exams last year came from Rutherford College, a decile 5 state co-ed in Te Atatu. Rutherford was also the only school in the country to have three “top in New Zealand” scholars.

Four decile 4-6 schools (Avondale, Lynfield, Mt Roskill Grammar and Rutherford) had a Scholarship pass rate not far short of the average for decile 9-10 state and Catholic schools. Decile 4 Avondale College also produced the top Cambridge exams scholar in the world last year. He won a $100,000 scholarship and will soon be studying at Cambridge University.

There’s a lot of confusion about deciles. Mark Shanahan, principal at Waitakere College, told us, “Even my many professional friends continue to ask, ‘Why haven’t you raised the decile of your school?’”

Shanahan can’t do that, no matter how high-achieving his school may become. That’s because deciles are not a measure of quality, and nor do they correlate to any given student’s chance of success. They reflect nothing more than the income level in the students’ homes: the greater the wealth, the higher the decile.

It’s true that on average, higher-decile schools have better academic results. Our table overpage shows that clearly. There are all sorts of reasons, many of which boil down to this: higher-decile schools are more likely than others to have students who will do well, whatever school they go to.

But it doesn’t follow that a higher decile school is a better school.


Looking at overall pass rates is not the best way to choose a school for an individual child. You want to burrow into the data a bit more than that.

Is your child very able academically? You’ll want a school that nurtures that ability. Look for solid success at the top end of performance: a long gold bar in the NCEA graph and gold stars in the UE and Scholarship results.

For most people, it’s probably fair to say they want a school that will set their children up well for tertiary study, either at university or in a vocational course. The best measure for this is University Entrance, which is not an exam but a level of achievement applied across all exam systems. Most students get it in Year 13, some in Year 12.

Check out the UE data, especially the arrows (which show how a school’s UE results are trending over time), the weighted average and the gold stars.

Maybe, though, your child’s greatest need is to have a good chance of going on to vocational or trade training after school. You’ll want to avoid the “long tail” of under-achievement, which afflicts some low-decile schools and some others too: there are Auckland schools where a third or more students leave without any qualification at all. That’s still a matter of shame.

The NCEA graph is where you should focus your attention. With low-decile schools it’s tempting to blame poor performance on poverty, and it’s true that schools in the low deciles face a range of hardships not so common to the others. But the graph shows some decile 1-3 schools have a very short tail of failure, and at some mid- and high-decile schools it’s longer than you might expect.

Again, the decile level doesn’t mechanically determine the outcome.


Teacher quality, especially where staff are motivated and organised to achieve by a good principal, is the greatest predictor of success for kids in school. Sadly, teaching is undervalued as a career option in New Zealand, so it doesn’t attract enough of our best and brightest young adults. And it’s too easy for mediocre teachers, who really should be doing something else, to clog up the staffroom.

But remember, while most (all?) schools have some teachers who are not going to set your child’s imagination and critical faculties on fire, that in itself doesn’t matter.

What you want is for the school to have at least some great teachers. Children need an enlightening and transformative experience at some stage in their schooling. It’s preferable they get it more than once, but they don’t need it all the time. What’s vital is that someone lights up a love of learning and an inner belief that they can and should set themselves high goals. Striking that match is what a great teacher does.

Apart from the great ones, the general level of teaching should also be pretty high. How do you tell? Check out The kids know, you know.

Also, ask about professional development and staff support for each other. Are teachers expected to keep extending themselves? How are they organised to share ideas and experience? In many parts of the city, schools share their skills in local clusters: being in a cluster is a great sign of a school’s commitment to improvement.

Catholic character: St Peter’s College.


Having the most skilled and experienced people mentor others, and involving everyone in peer support, doesn’t apply just to teachers. Many schools ask senior students to mentor juniors, and peer support through buddy systems and the like is quite common too.

Ask about this. Schools that value such programmes are strengthening their students’ sense of community, often breaking down social and cultural barriers in the process. This all helps with personal values as well as academic and other achievements, and it undermines the causes of bullying too.


Allan Vester, principal at Edgewater College in Pakuranga, says one of the reasons high-decile schools tend to record higher marks is that “the proportion of students with paid tutors closely mirrors the decile”. Families who can afford it are more likely to supplement their kids’ schooling with private help.


We haven’t assessed schools for all the non-academic things they do and that’s not because they’re unimportant — on the contrary. Pastoral care — how well the school nurtures the person and not just the exam sitter — is vital and we suggest you consider it closely in relation to your own values and judgments.

Don’t choose a school as a corrective for your wayward adolescent. If they like going to school and embrace what it has to offer, they are likely to do well.


University Entrance has just become harder to achieve: in response to pressure from the universities, the standard for UE was raised last year. Previously, UE equated to 43 credits in NCEA, which was much the same as a basic pass at level 3. Now, it’s 60 credits. This means fewer students are getting UE.

It also means many schools are strengthening their non-UE options in the senior school. Which in turn means…


The Ministry of Education rightly encourages schools to keep students for as long as possible: the longer young people stay in school, the better their chances of going on to further meaningful training and work.

Green Bay High School is decile 8, and therefore has a solid cohort of students who should, and mostly do, gain UE. But it is also one of many schools that have developed programmes for students who might previously have left in Years 11 or 12. As principal Morag Hutchinson told us, “such programmes may not prioritise UE as a school-leaver qualification, concentrating instead on pre-trade or similar unit standards”.

Clearly, schools like this are doing a good thing. But keeping kids in school for longer and not getting them to UE standard means the school’s UE pass rate has been dragged down. You can see that with the Green Bay results: UE is lower this year than last.

But look at that school’s NCEA graph. Three years ago, Green Bay could not get even half its students to NCEA level 3. Now, 66 per cent of them are there. That’s a remarkably sharp rate of increase and a good indicator that academically minded kids should do well there. Hutchinson says, “The improvements in our student achievement levels follows some very focused and dedicated work by our teachers, and is celebrated with our community already.” Green Bay’s NCEA data suggests it’s a school on the march.

Murray Black, deputy principal at Lynfield College, puts it in a broader context: “Our aim,” he says, “is to give all students the best opportunities for their future — whether it is Scholarship, University Entrance, Vocational Pathways Awards or NCEA qualifications. Building a student’s achievement may not be reflected in data tables but it has a huge impact on their future and their progression towards a productive contribution to our society.” Well said.

Music class at St Peter’s.


The bigger the school, the bigger the range of things on offer — more subjects (especially languages and science options), more clubs to join, and other extra-curricular activities. It’s worth looking at a large school (2200 or more), a mid-size school (say, around 1500) and a smaller one of under 1000 to see what the difference really is.

In most cases, the bigger schools get, the more subjects they offer. Auckland Grammar has a different view. With 2500 students, it offers an enormous range of activity across sports, the arts, you name it, but most of it is extra-curricular. Grammar teaches only core subjects and does not offer modern options like media studies.

Frankly, there’s a lot to be said for this. Media studies is very popular in many schools, but it overlaps with English and its rise has been directly proportional to the fall in the popularity of languages.

There’s another good argument for a big school: the teaching standard may be more consistent. In a smaller school, a good science department might depend on the quality of just one or two key teachers: if they leave, the department is in trouble.

On the other hand, big schools can be isolating, forbidding, frightening places for a lonely child. Ask the school how it manages this. At Macleans College in Bucklands Beach, the 2500 students all belong to one of eight whanau houses, each with a common area and various teaching spaces. A great many school activities take place within the whanau, as if the students are in a boutique school inside a bigger one. Principal Byron Bentley describes it as the best of both worlds.


There’s more nonsense peddled, and more entrenched thinking clung to, around exam systems than possibly any other part of Auckland school life.

NCEA, the national system used by almost all schools in the country, is designed to equip students with skills to progress on a variety of pathways into tertiary education and training. It has weaknesses. One is that it can enable a slacker approach: when brighter students perceive it won’t take much to pass, they may not try to excel.

Against that, NCEA has “merit” and “excellence” grades, and the standard required for excellence in Year 13 is widely regarded as being at least as tough as Scholarship. All schools should push students to fulfil their potential, and NCEA offers a ladder for that.


NCEA is also criticised for offering too many easy courses where you simply pass or don’t pass. These are called “unit standards”, and mostly they are designed to offer students a pathway to trade or industrial training. Some people think it’s wrong that you can redo NCEA courses until you pass.

But the sneering (“They sit there doing basket-weaving until they’re 18,” that kind of thing) is just snobbery. Unit standards are a strength of NCEA: they offer viable options for school students who are not heading to university or other higher-level tertiary training.

However, it is true that unit standards can be abused by schools chasing good scores in achievement tables. Some schools channel too many of their students into unit standards, thus raising the pass rates overall, when they could be setting higher goals for those students and helping them to achieve more.

Evidence of this might show up on our NCEA graph where a school has a low rate of students leaving school with nothing, but also a low pass rate for level 3. There aren’t many of them, and we caution that other factors could cause this pattern of results. If you’re concerned, ask.

Others take a different approach. Linda Fox, principal at decile 2 Kelston Girls’ College, told us her school’s policy is: “Don’t provide ‘easy’ standards at levels  1 and 2; don’t swell students’ programmes with unit-standard assessments which do not meet UE criteria; do provide sound and regular career and academic counselling so the girls have an individual career plan to transition them from school to tertiary study or work.”


Peter Gall, principal at Papatoetoe High School, makes an important point. He says, “We need to get rid of the assumption that NCEA level 1 is done in Year 11, level 2 in Year 12 and level 3 in Year 13. This is not the reality for many students who are involved in multi-level study.” This applies not just to unit standards but also to the more academic “achievement standards”.

With NCEA, a student who is gifted in maths but struggles in English might be working at level 3 in the former and level 1 in the latter. Keeping them in school for long enough is the key to enabling this.


The Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) system is championed by Auckland Grammar and some private schools. CIE was originally designed for English colonies that did not have a strong curriculum or assessment methods of their own. Proponents here say it’s far more than that now.

It has a traditional approach and many students report that it pushes them to a higher level than NCEA. It’s certainly true that CIE has higher standards than NCEA basic pass levels, but NCEA closes that gap with its merit and excellence grades.

CIE schools have tended to offer it to their more-academic students, although Auckland Grammar and some of the privates have rolled it out for everyone.

The International Baccalaureate is a two-year programme culminating in exams in Year 13. It’s used by half a dozen private schools and one state school, and in all cases it’s offered alongside NCEA.

In our view, the character of the schools that offer these systems is probably more significant than the exams themselves. Do CIE and/or IB produce more-able students than NCEA? One measure of that is Scholarship — and there is no obvious correlation between the exam systems and Scholarship achievement rates. St Cuthbert’s and Diocesan School for Girls are Auckland’s top Scholarship schools, but that’s not because they offer IB: it was true in the years before they switched to the Baccalaureate.

Music class at Baradene.


Go to God. The Catholic God, that is. Girls at Baradene are just as likely to get UE as those at Dio or King’s, and those at Marist, Carmel and St Mary’s are almost as likely to. You’ll pay much higher fees than at a state school (close to $5000 a year in some cases) but that’s still only a third to a quarter of what you’d face at a private school.

Catholic schools take the faith seriously — as our feature reveals. If you’re Catholic, you’ll be rubbing your hands with glee, and why not? If you’re not, remember they’ll be doing their proselytising best with your children.


Catholic schools are the hot prospect in education, which means they have waiting lists filled with children from highly motivated homes where many of the parents are lapsed Catholic or not Catholic at all. Not surprisingly, this has become a matter of some debate within Catholic circles.

The schools prioritise local Catholics, but after that they can choose — and choose they do. As our feature makes plain, schools like St Peter’s look for appealing features in the students — good at rugby, good at music, academic prowess — and supportive home environments. St Peter’s, in other words, prefers students more likely than most to do well.

That’s one reason for Catholic school success. Another is that the schools are now well funded, with strong state support to back the church’s contributions and those substantial fees.

Tony Collins, assistant principal at Marcellin College, points to what he thinks is a third factor. He asks: “To what extent did compulsory level 3 religious studies, with its 90 per cent pass rate last year and its absence of external standards, benefit the University Entrance candidates at [Catholic schools]?” Clearly, he and others believe RS offers a free pass for Catholic schools.

A more substantial fourth factor is that neither teaching nor school leadership is any longer in the hands of brothers and nuns. Qualified lay principals and teachers now lead the schools and they attract good teachers around them.

Beyond all that, Catholic schools know the value of an integrated approach to schooling that engages the whole family. The community raises the child. While many other schools also understand this, church schools have a head start in making it happen, because the church is already a part of family life. There are shared values, shared experiences and frequent regular opportunities for church and school to reinforce it all.

Catholic schools themselves also say it’s about the faith. Fair enough, of course they do. The challenge they pose to state schools, which must get by without religious belief, is to learn from all the other things Catholic schools do well.

Their holistic commitment to students and their families is an object lesson for all schools.


School fees at St Cuthbert’s are $20,656 a year, and the add-on costs of participating in school activities are high too. St Cuth’s draws its students almost entirely from families who have both money and a strong commitment to education. When students enter the school (some at age 5) it is extremely likely their vocabulary will be ahead of the norm. There will be books and other resources in their homes, and those homes will be warm, dry, healthy and secure.

St Cuth’s girls start ahead of the pack on every indicator for success you can name, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they stay ahead.

Mind you, those things are also true for King’s, Dio, St Kent’s, Kristin, the ACG schools — all the private schools — and yet St Cuth’s outperforms them all too. So it’s easy enough to argue it’s the best private school. But those other schools do have fine records of their own.


They don’t really have waiting lists anymore. That will make it easier for you to get your kids in, if you want to. But if you’re keen on a private school because you think it will allow your son or daughter to mix with “all the right people”, you should probably know that half of those people have fled to the Catholic schools and quite a few of the rest are at state schools.

Besides, in case you haven’t spotted it yet, Auckland is no longer run out of the Northern Club. The big firms on Shortland St, the leading politicians, the property tycoons, the movers and shakers in technology and the other start-up sectors that are changing our economy… very few are controlled by people who went to private schools.

Having said that, the private schools all have excellent academic records, small class sizes, terrific facilities, grand opportunities for extra-curricular experiences and a lot of very good teachers. The achievement ethic is extremely high.


So your 12-year-old son loves rugby? Chances are he’ll stop playing at age 14 or 15. You could argue that makes it important he goes to a high school where they’ll keep his passion alive. Or you could decide that rugby, like almost everything else kids do at the start of adolescence, will probably not be what he’s doing by the time he gets to senior school.

Both these things are true. It is important to find a school that nurtures its students’ passions. And it’s inevitable their passions will change. This means you’ll want to identify the underlying values — the things that make up a school’s character — because they are more important than the (probably) transitory interests of your child.

To put it another way: if he loves rugby, don’t send him to a school where rugby is the only thing they’re good at.


Many schools will tell you they’re big on cultural life. School plays, school bands, kapa haka, the works. They’re probably telling the truth, and those things are important. But beware the overstatement, and beware also the excuse.

Most schools do big musical shows, on their own or with others. Most schools with large Maori and Pasifika cohorts are strongly committed to Polyfest. The last thing you want is a school where all the students can perform on stage but none of them are any good at maths.

Find one that’s proud of its academic record and its kapa haka.


School deciles have been recalculated this year, and many Auckland schools have dropped a place or two. Even more than before, the city is over-represented by high-decile and low-decile schools, with fewer in the middle.



You may be surprised how often parents say to us, “My daughter is a sensitive soul who needs the special treatment that particular school will provide”, and “My son needs structure in his life or he won’t do anything”. Apparently, Auckland is chock full of fragile flowers and lazy lads.

Of course your children are special, and of course you want to put them in an environment tuned to their needs. But few children are so unusual they will not thrive in most schools. The local school is a good fit for most children, partly because it’s likely to be doing a good job and partly because belonging to the local community is rewarding for everyone involved.

Conversely, if your child has to cross town to go to school, they will also have to cross town to see their friends, play sport (even the home games are away), and go to other school events. They, and therefore you, will spend an awful lot of time in the car.


Single-sex schools tend to have better pass rates, especially for girls. But there is an in-built self-selection process: motivated families disproportionately choose single-sex schools.

Co-eds can compete. Some years ago, Byron Bentley at co-ed Macleans told Metro that he had set his sights on matching Auckland Grammar. Our table shows he’s succeeding. And at King’s College and St Kentigern — both high-achieving and formerly single-sex private schools that have become co-ed — no one suggests anything has gone awry.

By the way, if you believe in co-ed for your son, you really should believe in it for your daughter too. Many co-ed schools have fewer girls than boys.


Traditional or liberal? The biggest secret of all is this: ask Auckland Grammar and Western Springs — banner carriers for the two strains — to discuss their values, and they’ll tell you the same things in the same language.

Clearly, they are very different schools. But they share a set of values: a focus on achievement, a delight in diversity, pride in the community and the traditions of the school, respect for others. It’s striking. And if you go into the classrooms of the best teachers in those schools, you’ll find them doing much the same things in much the same way. Good teachers are everywhere.

Happy hunting.


The best schools in Auckland?

St Cuthbert’s College has the best academic record of all schools in Auckland. It has the highest Scholarship pass rate (60 per cent of Year 13) and the highest weighted average of UE passes over the past five years (97.4 per cent of all school-leavers).

Auckland International College has the highest pass rate for the top level of NCEA or its equivalent (98 per cent of all school-leavers). AIC students sit the IB exams, not NCEA.

McAuley High School has the best record at raising the achievement levels of its students. To take one of several measures: the weighted average over five years of all McAuley school-leavers who passed UE is 55.4 per cent, compared with 25 per cent for the other decile 1 schools).

Auckland Grammar School, Epsom Girls Grammar School and Macleans College are the standout state schools.

Baradene College, St Mary’s College and Carmel College are the best-performing Catholic schools.



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