Early leaving exemptions

What We Have Found

Around 700 early leaving exemptions were approved in 2019. 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 80% since 2006

Date Updated: July 2020

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.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.

Young people who leave school without qualifications may have difficulty finding employment, may experience financial hardship from working in lower paid work 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 after 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. In 2019 the rate is still significantly lower than this peak, at 13.1 approved applications per 1,000 students.

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 number of approved applications dropped to 11.0 per 1,000 15-year-old students in 2008. Between 2008 and 2012 the rates of early leaving exemptions declined and remained consistently low. Following the global financial crisis in 2008, from 2009-2014 the unemployment rates for 15-19 year olds were very high (over 18%).Since 2014 the number of accepted early leaving exemptions has been slowly increasing again (see Figure 1). In 2014 there were 366 approved applications, this has increased to 764 approved applications in 2019. The rate has increased from 6.5 per 1,000 15-year-old-students in 2014, to 13.1 per 1,000 15-year-old-students in 2019.

Figure 1: Early leaving exemption application, approval and decline rates (2002 to 2019)

A training provider course 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 2019. A further 8% of students who received exemptions enrolling in polytechnics, with 7% going into full time employment.

Figure 2: Early leaving exemption destinations (2010 to 2019)

Ethnic Group

In 2009 and 2010 there were reductions in early leaving exemptions for all ethnic groups, however since 2015 early leaving exemption rates for Māori, European/Pākeha, and Pacific students have been increasing, and these rates in 2019 are even higher than those of 2008. Compared to 2008, the increase in 2019 was highest for Pacific students with an increase of 42%, a 28% increase for European/Pākehā students, and 10% for Māori students.

In 2019, Māori students had the highest rates of early leaving exemption with 27.5 per 1,000 15-year-old students. Compared to 2018 the rate has increased by 3.1 per 1,000 15-year-old students. Pacific students had the largest rate increase of 3.3 per 1,000 15-year-old students, to 9.4 per 1,000 15-year-old students. The rate for European/Pākehā students was 10.6 per 1,000 15-year-old students and 0.4 per 1,000 15-year-old students for Asian students.

Figure 3: Early leaving exemption rates per 1,000 15 year olds by ethnicity (2008 to 2019)


The rates of early leaving exemptions continue to be higher for males than females. In 2019, 63% of all early leavers were male. This proportion has remained consistent since 2008, with male students accounting for around 60% - 70% of all early leaving exemptions.  The female rate was 9.9 per 1,000 15-year-old students, and the male rate was 16.2 per 1,000 15-year-old students in 2019.

Figure 4: Early leaving exemption rates per 1,000 15 year olds by gender (2007 to 2019)


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 2019 the early leaving exemption rate was over six times higher in quintile 1 schools (deciles 1 and 2) than quintile 5 (deciles 9 and 10). In 2019 the rate of early leaving exemptions was 23.1 per 1,000 students in quintile 1 schools; compared to 3.5 in quintile 5 schools.

Across the quintiles Māori students have higher rates of early leaving exemptions than European/Pākehā student. 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 (2019)


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

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.