What is school for?

School is one of the main ways children learn about the world before venturing into it as adults. It’s a formative experience, a rite of passage, and a time to acquire knowledge and skills. Many children have a great experience at school, but not all. Media reports highlight concerns about issues like truancy, and declining literacy and numeracy achievement. Even for those who succeed, some question whether we’re teaching them what they really need to know. Behind all of these issues is a fundamental question:

What is school for?

This question raises a number of others, including:

  • What do we hope school will do for students and for society?
  • Has the purpose of school changed over time?
  • Who is struggling in our current school system, and why?
  • How have educational outcomes changed over the years, and why?
  • Do we need to allow for more diverse approaches to schooling?
  • How can we create a culture where everyone values education and has an opportunity to succeed at school?

The Inkling was created to support better conversations about important issues like this. That’s why we host thought gatherings that bring leaders and experts together, including a discussion of this topic at the Auckland Art Gallery on 9 March 2023.

We also inspire discussion in families, communities, and workplaces, and we’ve used our experience with that event to create this backgrounder.

It’s designed to help anyone who’d like to have a conversation about this topic so in the next sections you’ll find some material to inform and inspire your discussion—key facts and figures, as well as relevant issues and arguments.

We’d love to hear from you if you’ve used this resource and have any feedback, or if you’ve got other ideas about supporting better public conversations.

We hope you find it helpful.


More New Zealanders are gaining formal qualifications:[1]

  • 37 percent of over 65 year olds have no formal qualification (NCEA Level 1, School Certificate, or higher), compared to just 9 percent of 18-34 year olds;
  • Increasing numbers of Māori and Pacific students are gaining post-secondary school qualifications.

However, these headline numbers don’t tell the whole story:

  • NCEA achievement rates have been rising, but actual achievement is falling (as measured by international tests).[2]
  • Many children can’t meet basic literacy standards: “35.4% - over a third of fifteen-year-olds – struggle to read and write.”[3]
  • Many children can’t meet basic numeracy standards: “47% of Year 9 students were low or very low achievers”.[4]
  • Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds do much worse than children from higher socio-economic backgrounds in both maths and literacy. In maths, the gap is equivalent to two years of schooling.[5]
  • Māori and Pacific students are over-represented among lower achievers in literacy and numeracy, and fewer achieve university entrance than Asian or Pakeha New Zealanders.[6]
  • Boys are lagging behind girls in reading and writing achievement and are less likely to achieve university entrance.[7]

Source: Royal Society of New Zealand

Source: New Zealand Initiative  


Research shows that “social belonging … and a sense of social connectedness predicts favourable outcomes,” for example where “a positive sense of Māori identity … can improve the educational outcomes of Māori by ameliorating their negative experiences at school.”[8]

Most children go to state schools (85 percent), while some are in integrated schools (11 percent), a few are in private schools (4 percent) and a handful are home-schooled (1 percent). (These numbers don’t add to 100 percent due to multiple data sources.)[9]

However, on average, students at private schools obtain higher qualifications than students at integrated schools, who in turn do better than students at state schools.[10]

Higher qualifications translate into higher incomes later in life. Conversely, “There are significant and persistent disadvantages for those that don’t achieve any school qualifications. Over 40% never engage in employment or any further education or training.” [11]

Source: Education Counts

Teachers are generally very positive about students’ learning experiences and about their own school environment and 69 percent say their morale is good. However, 26 percent say their workload is unsustainable[12] and increasing numbers intend to leave teaching (14 percent planning to leave in 2021 vs. 8 percent in 2015).[13] Some teachers are not being properly equipped to teach literacy or to teach maths and statistics.[14]

Fewer than half of principals can recruit teachers easily, around half of principals say their workload is unsustainable, and only 39% have enough time to be educational leaders in their schools.[15]


There are many different views on the purpose of schooling. For example:

  • Author GK Chesteron said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”
  • The Education Hub says, “part of the purpose of schooling is to provide children with access to knowledge, both know-what and know-how/skills, beyond that to which they otherwise would have access.”[16]
  • The Education and Training Act 2020 says that schools and the education system as a whole should equip children with “the skills, knowledge, and capabilities that they need to fully participate in the labour market, society, and their communities”, help them attain their potential, promote personal and social development, and instil in children the importance of inclusion, diversity, cultural knowledge, identity, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi and te reo Māori.[17]

Some argue that we should be deeply concerned by the negative statistics that show children aren’t achieving at school. Others agree but point out that merely being alarmed doesn’t help, and that too many interventions are surface-level and don’t address the deeper issues. For example, interventions may not connect with the communities that schools represent and their aspirations, or may be focused on academic outcomes rather than fostering hope or identity.

Some argue that we need to get back to basics and to traditional methods of teaching and learning. Others argue that the education system needs to be more innovative to keep up with social and cultural change, for example by adopting more digital technology or different learning environments. Others say that innovations like Modern Learning Environments (large, open classrooms containing multiple classes) don’t improve students’ outcomes and are actually overwhelming for some children.

Some argue that we simply don’t teach well enough. Others argue that we have many excellent teachers and you can’t expect academic results unless you engage with the social context that struggling children are coming from. Others respond that this puts a heavy burden on schools and that it’s unrealistic to expect them to function like community hubs.

Some argue that we need a more flexible education system that offers different pathways for different learners, for example by making it easier to start new or alternative schools. Others argue that there’s already plenty of flexibility in the existing system and schools just need to be empowered and resourced to meet the needs they’ve already identified.

Some argue that schooling should be teacher-led, meaning teachers should instruct children like “a sage on the stage,” while others argue that schooling should be child-led, meaning teachers should just facilitate children’s learning like “a guide on the side”. For example, the New Zealand Curriculum says that classrooms should be “a learning community. In such a community, everyone, including the teacher, is a learner”.

Some believe that children should be taught “competencies” (skills or practices, like critical thinking) instead of a prescribed body of knowledge. Others counter that you need to have something to apply skills to, so you need knowledge before you can use competencies.


[1] Stats NZ, “Education outcomes improving for Māori and Pacific peoples,” 15 June 2020,

[2] B. Lipson, Spoiled by Choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed (Wellington: New Zealand Initiative, 2018), 13.

[3] N. Hood and T. Hughson, Now I Don’t Know My ABC: The perilous state of literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand (The Education Hub, 2022), 4.

[4] G. Martin et al, Pāngaru Mathematics and Tauanga Statistics in Aotearoa New Zealand: Advice on refreshing the English-medium Mathematics and Statistics learning area of the New Zealand curriculum (Royal Society of New Zealand, 2021), 7.

[5] N. Hood and T. Hughson, Now I Don’t Know My ABC, 14-15; G. Martin et al, Pāngaru Mathematics and Tauanga Statistics in Aotearoa New Zealand, 9.

[6] N. Hood and T. Hughson, Now I Don’t Know My ABC, 14-15; G. Martin et al, Pāngaru Mathematics and Tauanga Statistics in Aotearoa New Zealand, 9; Education Counts, “School Leavers,”

[7] N. Hood and T. Hughson, Now I Don’t Know My ABC, 14-15; Education Counts, “School Leavers,”

[8] M. Webber and A. Macfarlane, “The Transformative Role of Iwi Knowledge and Genealogy in Māori Student Success,” in E.A. McKinley, L.T. Smith (eds.), Handbook of Indigenous Education (Springer, 2018).

[9] Education Counts, “School Rolls,”; Education Counts, “Homeschooling,”

[10] Education Counts, “School Leavers,”

[11] Education Counts, “Post-school labour-market outcomes of school-based NCEA,”

[12] C. Wylie and D. Coblentz, Teaching, School and Principal Leadership Practices Survey (NZ Council of Educational Research, 2022), 2, 7, 9.

[13] M. Alansari, M. Li and S. Boyd, “PLD and schoolwide wellbeing as predictors of teacher morale and workload” (NZ Council of Educational Research, 2022), 4.

[14] N. Hood and T. Hughson, Now I Don’t Know My ABC, 18; G. Martin et al, Pāngaru Mathematics and Tauanga Statistics in Aotearoa New Zealand, 15.

[15] C. Wylie and D. Coblentz, Teaching, School and Principal Leadership Practices Survey (NZ Council of Educational Research, 2022), 23.

[16] N. Hood and T. Hughson, Now I Don’t Know My ABC, 24.

[17] Education and Training Act 2020, sections 4 and 5(4).

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