Early leaving exemptions

What We Have Found

As a result of the Ministry of Education strengthening its early leaving application and approval process, the rate of early leaving exemptions for 15 year olds dropped by 90% since 2006.

Date Updated: August 2016

Indicator Description

Proportion of 15-year-old students enrolled who obtain an early leaving exemption.

Why This Is Important

In order to achieve in education, students must be engaged and interested in learning.  For many students this means staying at school.  All schools face the constant challenge of ensuring that students feel they belong and are encouraged to participate.  This promotes motivation, interest and achievement in learning.

Enrolment in school is compulsory for all students aged between 6 and 16 years.  However, parents of 15-year-old students may apply to the Ministry of Education for an exemption from schooling on the basis of educational problems, conduct, or the unlikelihood of the student benefiting from attending available schools.  Parents are required to give details about training programmes or employment that the student would move on to in the event of an early leaving exemption being granted.

Young people who leave school without qualifications may have difficulty performing in the workforce and may face difficulties in terms of life-long learning. However, initiatives like Youth Guarantee aim to provide learners with more choices, ways and places to achieve NCEA Level 2 or equivalent.There is a strong correlation between early school leavers and unemployment and/or lower incomes.  In New Zealand, recent data show that those with no qualifications have higher unemployment rates and lower median incomes when compared to those with qualifications.

How We Are Going

Prior to 2007, the number of applications for early leaving exemptions was high, at around 70 applications per 1,000 15-year-old students. The number of applications has dropped since 2006, to around 7 applications per 1,000 15-year-old students in 2015.

Last year, there was a slight increase in the number of accepted early leaving exemptions from 366 early leavers in 2014 to 390 in 2015, following a sharp drop from nearly 4,000 early leavers in 2006.

A Training Provider course was the most popular destination for a 15-year-old student who received an early leaving exemption, with the majority (73%) of early leavers going there in 2015.  A further 5% of all 2015 early leavers went into full time employment with 21% intending to enrol in a Polytechnic course. This continues the trend from 2010 of an increasing proportion of students continuing in education. Polytechnic enrolments increased by 17 percentage points while students entering full-time employment decreased by 5 percentage points. 

In May 2007, the Ministry of Education strengthened its early leaving application and approval process in order to reduce the number of early leaving exemptions, and the associated social and economic disadvantages that face those students who leave school early.  The process involved:

  • imposing a stricter interpretation of the early leaving legislative criteria, which sets a very high threshold for early leaving eligibility,
  • ensuring direct contact between parents and Ministry staff at the first stage of the early leaving process, to actively discourage early leaving and to support parents to find ways of keeping their children engaged in learning, and
  • promoting alternatives to early leaving, such as a combination of school and work-based learning.

The evidence suggests that these approaches have been highly successful.  Between 2006 and 2015 the early leaving exemption rate dropped by 90% from 65.3 to 6.7 early leavers per 1,000 15-year-old students. 

Figure 1: Early leaving exemption application, approval and decline rates (2005 to 2015)

Ethnic Group

The decline in rates of early leaving exemptions between 2006 and 2015 was similar for all ethnic groups; 89% for Māori, 91% for European/Pākehā, and 95% for Pasifika.

Māori students have higher rates of early leaving exemptions compared with students from other ethnic groups.  In 2015, the early leaving exemption rate for Māori students was 16.5 per 1,000 15-year-old students. The rate for European/Pākehā was 4.6 per 1,000 15-year-old students and the Pasifika rate was 3.0 per 1,000 15-year-old students.

Figure 2: Early leaving exemption rates per 1,000 15-year-olds by ethnicity (2005 to 2015)


In 2015, 61% of all early leavers were male. The female rate was 5.3 per 1,000 15-year-old students. The male rate was 8.0 per 1,000 15-year-old students. The gap between genders has consistently trended downwards since 2005.

Figure 3: Early leaving exemption rates per 1,000 15 year olds by gender (2005 to 2015)


There is a clear correlation between school socio-economic mix and a high proportion of early leaving exemption rates.  Schools in the lowest quintile (deciles 1 and 2) draw their students from communities with the highest degree of socio-economic disadvantage.  In 2015, the early leaving exemption rate for students from these schools was 8 times higher than the rate for students in the highest quintile (deciles 9 and 10). There were 12.4 per 1,000 15-year-old students who had an early leaving exemption from quintile 1 schools, compared to 1.6 per 1,000 students in quintile 5 schools. 

Figure 4: Early leaving exemption rates, by student gender and school quintile (2015)


Evidence about what works for this indicator can be found in:

  • Biddulph, F., Biddulph, J. and Biddulph, C. (2003). The Complexity of Community and Family Influences on Children's Achievement in New Zealand: Best Evidence Synthesis. Wellington: Ministry of Education.
  • Brooks, M., et al. (1997). Under-age School Leaving: A Report to the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme. Hobart: National Clearing House for Youth Studies.
  • Christenson, S., Reschly, A. L., & Wylie, C. (2012). Handbook of research on student engagement. New York, NY: Springer.

The Ministry of Education has established an Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis Programme to systematically identify, evaluate, analyse, synthesise and make accessible, relevant evidence linked to a range of learner outcomes.  Please visit BES (Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis) Programme to find out more.

The Youth Guarantee initiative aims to provide learners with more choices, ways and places to achieve NCEA L2 or equivalent. More information can be found at: