Retention of students in senior secondary schools

What We Have Found

In 2018, 82.8% of students remained at school to their 17th birthday. This is a decrease from 2017. Retention of senior students has dropped 2.2% since it peaked in 2015.

Date Updated: October 2019

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 2018, 82.8% of students stayed at school to the age of 17. There has been a 1.1 percentage point decrease since 2017 (83.9%). Retention peaked in 2015, but has dropped 2.2 percentage points since 2015.

Female students (86.0%) were more likely to remain at school until age 17 than their male counterparts (79.6%).

Asian students had a considerably higher rate of retention to 17 years old than other groups.  Conversely, Māori students had a considerably lower rate of retention.

Figure 1: Percentage of school leavers retained until age 17 (2009 to 2018)
Figure 1: Percentage of school leavers retained until age 17 (2009 to 2018).

Ethnic Group

In 2018, the proportion of Māori students remaining at school to age 17 was 70.6% and 82.0% for Pacific students. European/Pākehā and Asian students had higher rate. (84.1% and 94.6% respectively)

From 2009-2018, Māori students displayed a large improvement in the proportion of students remaining at school until age 17 with a 7.9 percentage point increase. This was followed by Pacific and European/Pākehā who saw increases of 2.9 and 2.5 percentage points respectively while Asian saw a 2.3 percentage point increase.

In 2018, the proportion remaining at school to age 17 had a decrease for all ethnicities. The Asian students saw the smallest decrease of 0.7 percentage points. Māori, Pacific and European/Pākehā saw decreases of 1.9, 1.3 and 1.1 percentage points respectively.

Figure 2: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older by ethnic group (2009 to 2018)

Māori Medium Education

Of the 15,398 Māori students who left school in 2018, 4.1% of them were learning in Māori Medium Education (MME)when they left school. This proportion has increased 0.8 percentage points in last year.

In 2018, 76.9% of Māori students from MME remained at school to age 17, down 0.7 percentage points from 2017. The retention of Māori students from English Medium Education (EME) was 70.3%, down 2.0 percentage points.

Māori student retention rate in MME increased 4.1 percentage points between 2009 (72.8%) and 2018 (76.9%). This retention rate dipped in 2013 (72.9%), and peaked in 2016 (79.2%). The retention of Māori students in EME had a larger increase over the last 10 years, of 7.9 percentage points between 2009 (64.8%) and 2018 (70.3%).

Figure 3: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older by education type (2009 to 2018)


Girls are more likely to stay at school until 17 than boys (86.0% compared to 79.6%).  Since 2017, girls have seen a 0.6 percentage point decrease while boys have seen a 1.6 percentage point decrease.

The size of this gender gap has increased in 2018, from 5.5 percentage points in 2017 to 6.4 percentage points in 2018.

Figure 4: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older by gender (2009 to 2018)


There is a clear correlation between decile (the socio-economic mix of the school the student attended) and the percentage of school leavers aged 17 or above.  Schools in the lowest quintile (deciles 1 and 2) draw their students from communities with the highest degree of socio-economic disadvantage. In 2018, 91.9% of students from schools in the highest decile (deciles 9 and 10) remained at school until the age of 17.  This was 18.4 percentage points higher than schools in the lowest two deciles (73.5%).

Figure 5: Percentage of school leavers aged 17 or older by quintile and ethnicity (2018)

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 poorer 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 (2018)


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. 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).