School leavers with NCEA Level 3 or above

What We Have Found

In 2019, 54 percent of school leavers achieved at least an NCEA Level 3 qualification.

Date Updated: August 2020

Indicator Description

Percentage of school leavers with an NCEA Level 3 qualification or above, this includes anyone who obtained University Entrance Award.

Why This Is Important

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement Level 3 (NCEA Level 3) is the final stage of upper-secondary education, and serves as a foundation for further study and/or employment.  NCEA Level 3, as with all levels of NCEA, encompasses a wide range of learning.  Students can attain credits through internal and external assessment, and they can accumulate these credits both within and across years. University Entrance (UE) is the minimum requirement to go to a New Zealand university. Achieving NCEA Level 3 in only one component of attaining UE.

The attainment of an upper secondary school qualification is linked to labour force status and incomes. Every year around 60,000 young people leave school and face choices about what to do next. Not being in employment, further education or training (NEET) affects between 15%-17% of school leavers.

Recent research by Scott (2018) found the earnings of students with UE who forgo employment initially for tertiary study, will overtake the earnings of all their less-qualified peer groups five years after leaving school. By year 7, the average earnings for the UE group is 28% higher than those of the NCEA 2 group.

In 2017, New Zealanders with a bachelor’s degree earn around 21% more than their counterparts with only an upper secondary education, the earning advantage increases to 54% for those with a master’s or doctoral degree, whereas these differences are 44% for a bachelor’s degree and 91% for a master’s or doctoral degree on average across the OECD. (OECD, 2019).

How We Are Going

In 2019, 54.0% of all school leavers achieved Level 3 or above, a 0.8 percentage point decrease from 2018.  Since 2009, there has been an increase of 12.1 percentage points in the proportion of school leavers who achieve Level 3 or above, with 54.0% in 2019 compared to 41.9% in 2009.

A change in the requirements for the NZQA university entrance award came into effect in 2014. Since 2014 students need to attain NCEA Level 3 and meet subject requirements in 3 approved University Entrance subjects. As seen in Figure 1, the proportion awarded University Entrance only was just 0.1-0.2% since 2014. These students are meeting UE requirements with other non-New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF) examinations.

Figure 1: Percentage of school leavers with NCEA Level 3 or above (2009-2019)

In 2019, 1.4% of students with an NCEA Level 3 qualification or above achieved a New Zealand Scholarship award or an NZQF qualification at Level 4 or higher.

Of students with an NCEA Level 3 qualification or above in 2019, 3.3% achieved a non-NZQF Level 3 equivalent such as International Baccalaureate, Cambridge International exams, and Accelerated Christian Education, and other overseas awards.

NCEA Level 3 endorsed with Excellence was achieved by 13.4%, while 24.8% achieved NCEA Level 3 with Merit, and 55.7% achieved NCEA Level 3 without endorsement.


In 2019, 75.2% of Asian school leavers achieving NCEA Level 3 or above, which was 18.5 percentage points higher than European/Pākehā (56.7%). Fewer than half of Pacific (46.3%) and Māori (35.6%) school leavers achieved NCEA Level 3 or above.

From 2018 to 2019, there was an overall decrease in the proportion of leavers attaining NCEA Level 3 or above across all ethnicities. The Asian students saw the largest decrease of 1.5 percentage points. Māori, Pacific and European/Pākehā saw decreases of 0.9, 0.8 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.

However, from 2009 to 2019, all ethnic groups saw an improvement in achievement rates of NCEA Level 3 or above for school leavers. Pacific school leavers had the largest increase of 23.1 percentage points, followed by Māori with 16.5 percentage point increase. Asian and European/Pākehā school leavers increased by similar levels between 2009 and 2019 (11.5 and 9.5 percentage points respectively).

Figure 2: Percentage of school leavers with NCEA Level 3 or above, by ethnic group (2009 to 2019)

Māori Medium Education

Of the 15,104 Māori students who left school in 2019, 3.9% of them were learning in Māori Medium Education (MME) when they left school. This proportion decreased 0.4 percentage points in last year

In 2019, 57.6% of Māori school leavers from MME achieved at least NCEA Level 3 or above, down 2.4 percentage points from 2018. However, this proportion was higher than that of Māori students from English Medium Education (EME), which was 34.7% in 2019, down 0.8 percentage points from 2018. The proportion of Māori school leavers achieving at least NCEA Level 3 or equivalent in MME has been higher than that of total school leavers since 2011.

Figure 3: Percentage of school leavers with NCEA Level 3 or above, by education type (2009 to 2019)

Learners in Māori Medium education (MME) have high rates of attainment in Māori language standards. In 2019, 53.2% of Māori school leavers from MME had attained in Te Reo Māori at level 3 or above, compared to 3.2% of Māori school leavers from English Medium education (EME).

Māori school leavers from MME are also more likely to attain at level 3 in English (19.8% compared to 12.9%), mathematics and statistics (17.8% compared to 12.7%), and the arts (15.3% compared to 9.3%). But less likely to achieve at level 3 in sciences (6.2% compared to 9.3%), social sciences (11.4% compared to 16.5%), health and physical education (13.9% and 18.9% respectively), and technology (1.3% compared to 3.8%).


In 2019 female school leavers achieved at a significantly higher rate (59.7%) than their male counterparts (48.4%). However, between 2018 and 2019, the proportion of females with NCEA Level 3 or above decreased by 1.7 percentage points compared to a 0.1 percentage point decrease for males

Figure 4: Percentage of school leavers with NCEA Level 3 or above by gender (2009 to 2019)


There is a clear positive correlation between the socio-economic mix of the school the student attended, as measured by school decile, and the proportion of school leavers achieving a NCEA Level 3 or above. Schools in the lowest deciles (deciles 1 and 2) draw their students from communities with the highest degree of socio-economic disadvantage. Students from schools in the highest deciles (deciles 9 and 10) are almost twice as likely to leave school having achieved NCEA Level 3 or above than students from schools in the lowest two deciles. There is, however, a great deal of variation amongst schools within each decile, with some schools in the lowest deciles with a greater proportion of students achieving NCEA Level 3 or above than some schools in the highest deciles

Figure 5: Percentage of school leavers achieving NCEA Level 3 or above, by school decile (2019)

University Entrance Award

In 2019, 39.4% of school leavers achieved a University Entrance Award (UE), a 1.0 percentage point decrease from 2018 (40.3%).

Asian students had the highest proportion of school leavers achieving UE with 63.8%. This was followed by European/Pākehā (43.8%), Pacific (22.8%) and Māori (18.6%)

Female leavers were more likely to obtain UE than their male counterparts, at 45.9% compared to 32.9%.

Figure 6: Percentage of school leavers with NZQA university entrance award (2009 to 2019)

A change in the requirements for the NZQA university entrance award came into effect in 2014. Results from 2014 onwards cannot be sensibly compared to previous years


  1. Endorsements only relate to NCEA; not non-NZQF courses.
  2. Total response ethnicity collection involves counting people who identify with more than one ethnic group in each of their ethnic groups, however, for the total, individuals are counted only once.
  3. Māori Medium Education is where students are taught all or some curriculum subjects in the Māori language for at least 51 percent of the time (Māori Language Immersion Levels 1-2).
  4. Total school leavers include school leavers of all ethnic groups in both MME and EME.
  5. Learners included in learning areas analysis do not include school leavers with international qualifications, or leavers who attended schools where a mix of NCEA and International assessment were offered.
  6. Attainment is defined as attaining 14 or more credits where the result in standards is achieved, merit, or excellence.
  7. Standards derived from the New Zealand Curriculum, Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, industry training, and tertiary institutions.
  8. Deciles are used to provide funding to state and state-integrated schools to enable them to overcome the barriers to learning faced by students from lower socio-economic communities. Students from schools with a higher decile have a smaller proportion of students with the lowest socio-economic factors.


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

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.