What are the top issues facing NZ secondary schools?

Jo MacDonald and Dr Linda Bonne, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Every three years since 2003, the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) has undertaken a national survey of secondary schools. The latest survey shows that schools feel under pressure to meet the increasingly complex needs of students, including mental health issues. Decile 1-2 schools continue to face the deepest challenges in meeting their students’ needs. This is especially evident in relation to student wellbeing. Other major issues on principals’ minds are recruiting quality teachers and having enough funding to meet their school’s needs. This blog post gives an overview of these important findings. First, we give some background information about the survey itself.

About the national survey of secondary schools

The survey provides a comprehensive national picture of what is happening in our secondary schools, how things have changed over time, and the impact of policy changes. It also gives insights into how teachers, principals, trustees, and parents and whānau experience our secondary education system.

In Term 3 of 2018, we sent surveys to all 314 state and state-integrated English-medium secondary schools in New Zealand. For each school, we sent the survey to the principal, the board of trustees chair, and one other trustee (we asked the board chair to give the survey to someone whose opinion might differ from their own). We also sent surveys to a random sample of 12 teachers and 20 parents each at a cross-section of 188 (60%) of these schools. You can read more about the methodology and respondent characteristics in the appendix to the report. Relatively low response rates (53% of principals, 31% of teachers, 22% of trustees, and 14% of parents), especially for trustees and parents, mean some caution needs to be taken when generalising from the survey findings. However, the findings still give a good picture of what is happening in our secondary schools, including issues that schools are facing in 2018.

Principals and trustees selected “major issues” from a list of 19 issues

We asked principals and trustees which of 19 items they thought were major issues facing their school. They could select as many issues as applied to them. The table below brings together the picture from both groups. Principals identified more issues than trustees (principals selected a median of 8 issues, and trustees a median of 6 issues). Nine of the top 10 issues are the same across both principals and trustees.


(n = 167)

(n = 138)

Recruiting quality teachers



Providing support for vulnerable students (e.g., wellbeing or mental health needs)






Too much being asked of schools



Cost of maintenance and replacement of digital technology



Property maintenance or development



Dealing with inappropriate use of technology



Staffing levels/class sizes



Timetabling to support a growing range of student learning opportunities



Parent and whānau engagement



Retaining quality teachers



Māori student achievement



Providing good curriculum options for all students



Achievement of students with learning support needs



Good quality PLD



Student achievement



Student behaviour



Pacific student achievement



Responding to cultural diversity



Using modern learning environments effectively



Student bullying



Two issues that are new to the 2018 survey are foremost for principals: recruiting quality teachers, and providing support for vulnerable students. Both are about provision that enables and provides a strong foundation for teaching and learning within the school. Resources—physical, human, and financial—are the prime concerns for trustees:  property, recruiting quality teachers, and funding.

Recruiting quality teachers is the top issue identified by principals

Recruiting quality teachers was the top issue for principals (identified by 73%), and second issue for trustees (identified by 50%). This issue did not show an association by school decile or school location—it was identified across the board. Although not directly comparable (because we split the 2015 item to get better information), in 2015, 26% of principals and 18% of trustees selected “attracting and keeping good teachers” as a major issue.

Providing support for vulnerable students is the second issue identified by principals

Providing support for vulnerable students was the second most identified issue by principals (66%); and in the top 10 issues for trustees (39%). This emerged as a key theme throughout our report. It has its own chapter and has been a focus of media reporting. In terms of providing support, principals reported that their school-based support (such as in-school counsellors, Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLB), and health professionals) was more useful than external supports (such as off-site social or youth workers, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, and the attendance service) for student wellbeing and behaviour.

Funding is an issue for more principals and trustees in 2018 than in 2015

Funding was identified as a major issue by nearly two-thirds of principals, compared with half in 2015. The proportion of principals who say their staffing entitlement is sufficient also continues to decline. Overall, there were fewer decile-related differences in what principals said about their schools’ financial situations in 2018 than in 2015. In 2015, we had found that financial stability increased with school decile (i.e., higher decile schools had the most stable financial situation). This association was not apparent in the 2018 data.

The national survey is wide-ranging

The survey questions are a combination of long-standing questions and new ones, to identify changes over time as well as reflect current issues. For example, this year we asked for the first time about interactions schools have with their local iwi, and about participation in Kāhui Ako. We encourage you to delve into the report and use the findings to connect to your own context and research. Some other examples of findings are:

  • Progress with The New Zealand Curriculum key competencies has largely plateaued, although more teachers were talking about how they make assessment decisions with their students.
  • There were increases in some uses of digital technology for students’ learning, particularly generating multimedia work and playing games or simulations.
  • It is early days for Kāhui Ako, and it seems that for many, involvement in a Kāhui Ako has yet to lead to changes within the school or for students. Principals are positive about the learning pathway that is enabled by Kāhui Ako, but fewer than half of principals agree the time investment is worth it.
  • Principals report high levels of enjoyment in their role, but say their morale and workload have worsened since 2015. Teachers report slightly lower morale and slightly higher stress levels than in 2015.

The full report, Secondary schools in 2018: Findings from the NZCER national survey, is available here.


In 2019 we’ll be running the national survey of primary and intermediate schools

The national survey of primary and intermediate schools also runs on a 3-year cycle. During Term 3 this year, we’ll be surveying principals, teachers, trustees, and parents and whānau to get a national picture of what is happening in our primary schools. We’ll look forward to sharing those findings in due course.

Jo MacDonald NZCER photo (1).jpgJo MacDonald is a Senior Researcher at NZCER. She has a keen interest and expertise in policy and programme evaluation across educational settings. In recent years much of her work has been in the area of teacher workforce including evaluating initiatives that support early career teachers. Jo also leads NZCER’s coordination of the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI), a contestable research fund that NZCER manages for the Ministry of Education.

LB_2015 (1).jpgLinda Bonne is a Senior Researcher at NZCER. She is interested in how policy initiatives play out in schools, a focus for NZCER’s long-running National Survey project, which she leads. She is part of the NZCER team working on the 2018 mathematics and statistics study for the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement. Linda is the author of a report about a group of participants in Competent Learners @ 25 (the most recent cycle of the Competent Children, Competent Learners project), soon to be released.



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