Story: Primary and secondary education

Page 4. Standards and examinations

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The inspector’s visit

After 1877 Education Board inspectors visited primary schools annually and examined what each child had learned. Children who passed the examination were allowed to move up into the next class; those who failed had to repeat the year. As results were often published in local newspapers, there was great pressure on children to pass, and those who failed were publicly humiliated.

The day of judgement

Before 1904 the annual visit of the school inspector was anticipated with a mixture of fear and excitement. The impending school examination was announced in the local paper, and the names of children who were promoted to the next class were often also published. Children carefully cleaned their desks, decorated the classrooms with greenery and flowers, and dressed in their best clothes for what one child described as the ‘dreaded time’.1

In 1904 teachers gained the power to decide the classification of children up to and including Standard 5 (Year 7).

Competency and Proficiency

From 1899 inspectors could make an award, Proficiency, to children who passed Standard 6 (Year 8) in a certain number of subjects. A similar award, Competency, was awarded to children who passed Standard 5 (Year 7), and from 1903 this was the standard for getting into high school. However, Proficiency became the more prized qualification, especially as it gave the holder two free years of secondary schooling. When Proficiency was abolished in 1936, teachers and pupils were released from the narrow focus on meeting exam standards.

Senior free places

Between 1905 and 1912 students who had gained a junior free place but who wanted to extend their high school years sat the junior civil service examination at the end of Year 10 in order to gain a senior free place. From 1913 to 1936 (when all secondary education became free) passing the public service entrance or intermediate examination allowed students to go further at high school. A senior national scholarship provided additional benefits.


Students sat Matriculation (later University Entrance) in their third or fourth year of high school (Year 11 or 12), but most stayed on for a fourth year to qualify for a Higher Leaving Certificate, which covered university fees, and to try for university scholarships. From 1934 a school certificate (not to be confused with the later qualification) was awarded partly on the basis of university entrance examination results.

School Certificate

With the raising of the school-leaving age in the mid-1940s, there was a further change to high school examinations. From 1946, School Certificate exams were held at the end of the third year (Year 11). Used by employers to gauge a student’s achievement in academic and vocational subjects, ‘School C’ exams often marked the end of a person’s high school career.

University Entrance

From 1944 the University Entrance (UE) exam was sat or accredited (awarded on the basis of the year’s performance) at the end of the fourth year (Year 12), when Sixth Form Certificate was also awarded if standards were met according to internal assessment. Students staying on for a fifth year could compete for scholarships and bursaries. In 1985 the ‘UE’ examination was abolished.

Setting standards

Contemporary debates over national standards are not new – criticism of educational methods has occurred periodically since the 1930s, with both parents and employers calling for more rigorous standards. A retired teacher, commenting on the ‘back to basics’ campaign of the 1980s, noted the challenge of catering to the needs of children of very different aptitudes and remarked, ‘Any education system is a product of its own times and adapts to what it sees as the future needs of its pupils in the society in which they will live.’2


Between 2002 and 2004 the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) became the main secondary-school qualification, replacing School Certificate, University Entrance, Sixth Form Certificate and University Bursary, but not Scholarship examinations. It was the culmination of educationalists’ desire to introduce more internal assessment, and to measure skills not taken into account in the old system of examinations.

NCEA is assessed at three levels during secondary school, from Year 11 to 13, against unit standards which are based on competencies, and achievement standards which are based on the curriculum. Results are based on both internal assessment and examinations. Students who perform strongly in certain courses can gain a merit or excellence endorsement on their NCEA record of achievement.

  1. Quoted in Kay Matthews, ‘White pinafores, slates, mud and manuka: Pakeha women’s experiences of primary schools in Hawke’s Bay, 1880–1918’, in Women and education in Aotearoa, edited by Sue Middleton. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, Port Nicholson Press, 1988, p. 24. Back
  2. H. R. Hooker, Bead-frames to calculators: a teaching life. Christchurch: H. R. Hooker, 1983, p. 77. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Primary and secondary education - Standards and examinations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012