Retention of students in senior secondary schools

What We Have Found

In 2019, 82 percent of students remained at school to their 17th birthday. This is a decrease from 2018. Retention of senior students has dropped 3 percentage points since it peaked in 2015.

Date Updated: August 2020

Indicator Description

Percentage of students staying on at school to age 17.

Why This Is Important

Completion of upper secondary education is associated with a range of economic and social benefits both in New Zealand and across the OECD.  Retention to senior secondary schooling is linked to higher levels of skills and knowledge required for participation in our increasingly knowledge-based society and the wider global community (OECD, 2017).

According to Norton et al. (2000) the risk of unemployment for those with no school qualifications or only Year 11 qualifications is higher than for those with Year 12 or Year 13 qualifications.  The positive effect of each additional year of schooling on incomes has been estimated to range from 5 to 10%.

Lashlie (2005) found that one of the factors important for successful school leaving for boys was merely staying at school until the end of the Year 13.  This is because it takes boys longer to achieve a high level of maturity and self-management than girls, and that boys’ schools in particular can “hold boys steady while the chaos of adolescence sorts itself”.  Simply keeping boys at school (by making school relevant) until they have decided what they want their next step in life to be can reduce the chances of a boy “arriving at a prison gate”.

How We Are Going

In 2019, 82.0% of students stayed at school to the age of 17. There has been a 1.6 percentage point decrease since 2018 (83.6%). Retention peaked in 2015 (85.0%), but has since dropped 3.0 percentage points.

Female students (85.0%) were more likely to remain at school until age 17 than their male counterparts (79.0%).

Asian students have the highest rates of retention to 17 years.  Māori students have the lowest rates of retention.

Figure 1: Percentage of school leavers retained until age 17 (2009 to 2019)
Figure 1: Percentage of school leavers retained until age 17 (2009 to 2019)


In 2019, the proportion of Māori students remaining at school to age 17 was 69.6%. Retention of Pacific, European/Pākehā, and Asian students was 81.6%, 83.2% and 94.0% respectively.

From 2018 to 2019, the proportion of students remaining at school to age 17 decreased for all ethnicities. The Asian students saw the smallest decrease of 1.0 percentage points. Over the same period Māori, European/Pākehā and Pacific students saw decreases of 2.3, 1.6 and 1.3 percentage points respectively.

However, from 2009 to 2019, Māori students showed a large improvement in the proportion of students remaining at school until age 17 with a 10.1 percentage point increase from 62.7% in 2009 to 72.8% in 2017. Between 2017 and 2019 retention of Māori school leavers has dropped 3.2 percentage points.

Retention of Pacific students peaked in 2016 and has declined 2.3 percentage points from 83.9% in 2017 to 81.6% 2019.

Retention of European students peaked in 2015 and has declined 3.6 percentage points from 86.8% in 2015 to 83.2% in 2019.

Asian students have had high retention to age 17, steadily increasing from 2009 to 2017, but retention declined slightly (1.3 percentage points) from 2017 to 2019.

Figure 2: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older 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)2 when they left school.

In 2019, 79.7% of Māori students from MME remained at school to age 17, up 2.2 percentage points from 2018. The retention of Māori students from English Medium Education (EME) was 69.1%, down 2.6 percentage points.

Māori student retention rate in MME increased 6.9 percentage points between 2009 (72.8%) and 2019 (79.7%). This retention rate dipped in 2013 (72.9%), and peaked in 2019. The retention of Māori students in EME had a larger increase from 2009 to 2017 (10.3 percentage points) and peaked in 2017, but  has decreased 3.5 percentage points between 2017 (72.6%) and 2019 (69.1%).

Figure 3: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older by education type (2009 to 2019)


Girls are more likely to stay at school until 17 than boys (85.0% compared to 79.0% in 2019). Since 2018, girls have seen a 2.0 percentage point decrease while boys have seen a 1.4 percentage point decrease. This has decreased the gender gap in 2019, from 6.6 percentage points in 2018 to 6.0 percentage points in 2019.

Figure 4: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older by gender (2009 to 2019)


A clear correlation can be seen between the socio-economic mix of the school the student attended (decile) and the percentage of school leavers aged 17 or above. Schools in quintile 1 (deciles 1 and 2) draw their students from communities with the highest degree of socio-economic disadvantage. In 2019, 91.5% of students from schools in the quintile 5 (deciles 9 and 10) remained at school until the age of 17.  This was 18.4 percentage points higher than schools in quintile 1 (73.1%).

Figure 5: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older by quintile and ethnicity (2019)

There is a large variation in the percentage of students remaining at school until age 17 amongst schools within each decile. While, on average, lower decile schools have lower retention rates than higher decile schools, some decile 1 and 2 schools have higher retention rates than decile 9 and 10 schools.

Figure 6: Percentage of school leavers who were retained at school aged 17 and above, by school decile (2019)


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 the BES (Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis) Programme to find out more.

Further statistics related to school leavers are available on the School Leavers pages of Education Counts.


  1. Total response ethnicity collection involves counting people who identify with more than one ethnic group in each of these ethnic groups. For the New Zealand total, individuals are counted only once.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.