Early leaving exemptions

What We Have Found

Around 600 early leaving exemptions were approved in 2018. Early leaving exemptions were more common for Māori students, male students and those who attended decile 1 schools. The rate of early leaving exemptions continues to remain low compared to historical rates because of the strengthening of the approval process with rates having dropped about 83% since 2007.

Date Updated: June 2019

Indicator Description

Proportion of 15-year-old students enrolled in school 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 if the student may not benefit 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, Youth Guarantee Fund initiatives improve the transition from school to work by providing a wider range of learning opportunities, making better use of the education network, and creating clear pathways from school to work and study. The Youth Guarantee Fund is part of a wider Youth Guarantee suite of initiatives that includes Vocational Pathways and Secondary-Tertiary Programmes (such as Trades Academies). These initiatives provide opportunities for students to achieve a minimum of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level 2 or equivalent, to enable progression to higher levels of study, training or employment.

There is a strong correlation between leaving school early 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 school level qualifications. After tracking students for seven years post leaving school, those who achieved NCEA level 1 on average earned 15% less and those with no achievement earned 51% less than their peers who achieved NCEA level 2 (Scott, 2018).

How We Are Going

In the early 2000’s, the number of applications for early leaving exemptions was high, peaking at 71.1 approved applications per 1,000 15-year-old students in 2005. This number has significantly dropped to around 11.2 approved applications per 1,000 students in 2018.

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.

These changes had a dramatic effect, with the number of accepted exemptions decreasing 66% between 2007 and 2018.

Between 2007 and 2013 the rates of early leaving exemptions declined and remained consistently low. Since 2014 the number of accepted early leaving exemptions has been slowly increasing again (see Figure 1). In 2017 there were 523 approved applications, this has increased to 637 approved applications in 2018. The rate of early leaving exemptions per 1,000 students in 2018 was 11.2 per 1,000 students.

Figure 1: Early leaving exemption application, approval and decline rates (2002 to 2018)

A training provider course[1] continued to be the most common destination for a 15-year-old student who received an early leaving exemption, with the majority (85 %) of early leavers choosing this pathway in 2018, which is 1% less than in 2017.  A further 9% of students who received exemptions enrolling in polytechnics[2], with 6% going into full time employment.

Figure 2: Early leaving exemption destinations (2010 to 2018)

Ethnic Group

Since 2014 early leaving exemption rates for European, Pacific and Māori students have been increasing, but these rates do remain lower than those of 2008. Since 2008 there have been reductions in early leaving exemptions for all ethnic groups; 2% for Māori, 7% for Pacific students, and 63% for Asian students, but an increase for European/Pākehā students of 6%.

In 2018, Māori students had the highest rates of early leaving exemptions and have also seen the largest increase since 2017.  In 2017 the Māori rate of early leaving exemptions was 19.9 per 1,000 students, this has increased by 4.6 per 1,000 to a rate of 24.5 per 1,000 in 2018.

Since 2016 the rates of early leaving exemptions have been increasing for European/Pākehā and Māori students, but the biggest increase has been for Māori students. The 2018 rates for European/Pākehā students was 8.8 per 1,000, the Pacific student rate was 6.1 per 1,000 students and the rate for Asian students was 0.3 per 1,000 students.

Figure 3: Early leaving exemption rates per 1,000 15 year olds by ethnicity (2008 to 2018)


The rates of early leaving exemptions continue to be higher for males than females. In 2018, 61% of all early leavers were male. The female rate was 8.9 per 1,000 15-year-old students, and the male rate was 13.4 per 1,000 15-year-old students in 2018. Although the early leaving exemptions rates have decreased for both male and female 15-year-old students since 2005 the proportion has remained consistent with male students accounting for around 60% of all early leaving exemptions.

Figure 4: Early leaving exemption rates per 1,000 15 year olds by gender (2007 to 2018)


Schools in the lowest quintile (deciles 1 and 2) draw their students from communities with the highest degree of socio-economic disadvantage. There is a clear correlation between school socio-economic mix and a high proportion of early leaving exemption rates.  In 2018 the early leaving exemption rate was 9 times higher in quintile 1 schools (deciles 1 and 2) than quintile 5 (deciles 9 and 10). In 2018, the rate of early leaving exemptions was 20.9 per 1,000 students in quintile 1 schools; compared to 2.2 in quintile 5 schools.

Across the quintiles Māori students have higher rates of early leaving exemptions than European/Pākehā students. Rates for Pacific students are consistently lower than that of both Māori and European/Pākehā students.

Figure 5: Early leaving exemption rates, by student ethnicity and school quintile (2018)


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.
  • Scott, D. (2018). Post-school labour-market outcomes of school-based NCEA. Retrieved from Education Counts June 2019.

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

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:


  1. Training provider courses are provided through the Ministry of Social Development’s Work and Income group, under the Training Opportunities scheme. They provide training opportunities to clients who have, or will face, significant periods of unemployment and who have low or no qualifications. Courses provide foundation skills that enable clients to move into sustainable employment or higher education.
  2. Polytechnics or Institutes of Technology are tertiary education providers who deliver technical, vocational and professional qualifications.