School Choice, Kiwi-Style

THE NEW ZEALAND EDUCATION REFORMS link  (my highlights in bold)

More than a decade ago, New Zealand faced problems similar to those in Canadian public schools, rapidly expanding costs and declining performance. The Kiwis made bold, across-the-board reforms, with positive results.

New Zealand’s government had created a massive, unresponsive educational system where parents had little or no influence. The system was failing to meet acceptable achievement levels. There was outright bureaucratic capture, and little or no performance accountability. The system consumed 70 cents of every education dollar, with only 30 cents spent in the classroom. As in Canada, budget figures underestimated these overheads; what were officially described as “administration costs” represented a convenient fiction.

The New Zealand government administered education through a highly bureaucratic structure. The Ministry of Education, the central body that answered to the federal government, made all of the rules and controlled expenditures with prescriptive regulations. It determined the curriculum, how it would be taught, and how performance would be measured. In every region, the ministry established Boards of Education to whom it delegated limited power.

Since reforms were implemented, about 67 cents of each education dollar is now spent in the classroom, more than double the previous amount. Parents play the dominant role in the educational choices for their children. Learning has improved, and classroom size is down.

Education continues to be fully funded by the central government from general income and consumption tax revenues. Every child is still entitled by law to a tax-supported education until completing secondary school. Little else remains the same.


Comprehensive reform in New Zealand reversed the top-down style of governance. All Boards of Education have been eliminated. Boards of Trustees have been established for each school. Parents of the children at that school run for election to boards, which are unpaid positions. The Trustees deliver accountability directly into the hands of the parents. The Board of Trustees makes all spending decisions, and has full responsibility for what happens at their school.

The Board of Trustees writes the Charter for their school, and is bound by and accountable for achieving its goals. The Charter can only be changed after a consultative process with the parents.

The role of the Ministry has been changed to that of the body that passes to the Board of Trustees a block of money determined by a formula based on the number of students at the school. It is also responsible for auditing school performance against its Charter requirements. Reflecting its new role, the Ministry was reduced to about half its former size.

Because education is the most important influence on a child’s future, next to parenting, New Zealanders participated in a significant debate over parental rights regarding education. They decided that parents have an absolute right to choose the school at which their children will be educated. The consequence: good schools with good teachers get more students, less capable schools with less capable teachers get fewer students, which means that less money and fewer teachers are employed at that school.

Private schools may get state funding equivalent to public schools. To do so they must make an application to the Minister of Education to integrate. This process requires them to prove their buildings, grounds and facilities meet code standards. About 15 percent of all schools are private, and to date about 90 percent of these schools have integrated.

Once integrated, private schools have the right to maintain their special character (normally religious education and ethics), though they must teach the core curriculum and be open and actively teaching the students for a prescribed number of days each school year. For this they get identical funding to public schools, including capital funding. They may compete to educate any children. This process started in the 1970’s, and is now non-controversial.

The elimination of bureaucracy freed up large quantities of money, and the national government decided that all of it would remain a part of education spending. This decision allowed major investments in classroom technology, a significant investment in teaching aides and bringing all maintenance projects up to date.


The Third International Mathematics and Science Examination gave international achievement tests to samples of students in multiple countries. Students were tested in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades. The figures below present 1995 mathematics achievement scores for the United States and New Zealand compared to the international average.

Achievement scores are influenced by a variety of factors other than the quality of schools. For instance, New Zealand introduces mathematics and science into the curriculum at later grades than is commonly the case. Although this curriculum severely handicaps the performance of New Zealand’s 4th grade students on international exams, it is ultimately of no real consequence.

The influence of school quality, however, increases as a student spends more time in the school system. Idiosyncratic factors have largely played themselves out by the graduating year. The 12th Grade tests are ultimately more important than earlier ones, reflecting the quality of skills held by students entering college and the workforce.

The 1995 Mathematics TIMSS exams reveal that New Zealand 4th graders start 30 points below the international average, but they quickly catch up, with 8th graders being only 5 points below the international average, and 12th graders scoring 22 points above the international average. Obviously, once mathematics has been introduced, the lessons are learned well in New Zealand.


Ironically, the cautionary lesson to be drawn from the New Zealand experience is to avoid school choice programs that include only public schools. The key problem with the New Zealand program lies in the fact that the government retained ownership over school facilities, and has been reluctant both to spend money expanding popular schools and to close unpopular schools. This is a problem for those who argue for keeping choice within the realm of public schools, not for those advocating full school choice. Such political considerations interfere with the functioning of the education market in New Zealand, but would be less of a problem under a full choice program. Private and charter schools in the North America can and do open, expand and close their doors, free of considerations about government capital support.

The “cautionary tale” for competition models is the fact that some schools will gain students while others will lose them under competition. The authors, however, acknowledge that many of the schools having difficulty under the reforms are the same schools that had trouble under the previous centralized regime. The authors have therefore mistaken a real gain of the reforms for a problem. New Zealand schools esteemed by parents have grown, while unpopular schools have shrunk. What this means is that fewer Kiwi children today attend schools which parents regard as being of relatively low quality than was the case beforethe reforms. This is a victory to be celebrated rather than a failure of the reforms.


Although not without its imperfections, school reform in New Zealand has, as stated earlier, been quite successful, and is supported by a substantial majority of the population. Individual schools have much more control over the style and content of their offerings, and budget decisions reflect the values of educators and parents instead of the needs of politicians, bureaucrats and teachers’ unions.

Post-reform, the proportion of resources dedicated to front-line educating in New Zealand has doubled, while administrative layers have been peeled away. This change in priorities is reflected in New Zealand’s improved ranking in international test scores.

4 thoughts on “School Choice, Kiwi-Style

  1. It would be interesting to know how East Lothian currently compares in terms of pence per pound spent in the classroom.

    I suspect that part of the improved performance of the NZ schools will have been derived from the increased in-class spending. If savings were to be made in East Lothian schools, it is a reasonable bet that the savings would go to the paying off of the UK’s mountain of debt. So we would be robbed of that contributing element to improvement.

    Delaying the teaching of maths and science doesn’t seem like a good approach, instinctively. What of the pupils who leave before reaching 12th grade? Have they managed to catch up before leaving?

    Do you have more recent or the most recent performance results? The ones you quote are around 14 years old. It would be interesting to find out how these schools are performing now.

    Allowing an East Lothian school to close because of poor performance would lead to significant daily travel for pupils. Some form of intervention and recovery programme would need to be in place to avoid this.

    But yes, all very interesting and potentially exciting.

  2. For many (most?) parents in East Lothian, choice of school is not realistic – you live where you live, and generally there’s one school there. Unless you really are not happy with that school, and are willing and able to drive your child somewhere else, that is pretty much where they’ll go. If choice is good, is there any way of having a bit more of it within schools? Some of the primaries have 3 or 4 classes – would it be possible to say have a more arts/crafts based stream and one that focusses on the basics say? And parents could choose what they thought would best suit their child? Or would this just lead to open warfare?

  3. Ian

    Thanks for your comments. It’s only by exploring other systems – and learning from their successes and failures – that we can develop a system which meets the needs of East Lothian communities.


    Thanks for your comment. It’s an interesting idea about choice within schools – this is certainly an aspiration for a Curriculum for Excellence.


  4. Don

    Have you looked into the cause and effect of the duration of holidays?

    I know that it is good for children – and teachers! – to have a decent length of break which is good recovery time, but I wonder if having 7 weeks+ in summer means that children have forgotten a lot?


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