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Private education

by Megan Cook

Elite establishments originally modelled on England’s exclusive ‘public’ schools are the best known of New Zealand’s private schools, but state-integrated Catholic schools and Māori church boarding schools also began life as private schools.

Private schools in New Zealand

Private schools in the 2000s

New Zealand’s thriving private education sector included almost 100 private schools and just over 300 state-integrated schools in the 2000s. In 2010, 4% of school-age children attended private schools and 11% attended state-integrated schools.

State-integrated and private schools

State-integrated schools are schools that were previously private and have become part of the state education system. They are government funded and teach the national curriculum. They maintain their special character, own their own land and buildings and are able to charge an attendance fee to fund work on buildings and facilities and repayment of associated debt.

Private schools (sometimes called independent schools) also receive some government funding, but most of their support is provided by school fees and endowments. They do not have to follow the national curriculum.

Catholic schools

The majority of state-integrated schools are Catholic. In 2011 the 190 Catholic primary schools and 49 secondary schools were attended by 8.7% of New Zealand’s school children. In the 2000s 10 new state-integrated Catholic schools opened, 7 closed or were merged, and others expanded their rolls. The number of pupils increased by 22% between 1992 and 2011.

Non-Catholic schools

There were about 70 non-Catholic integrated schools. Many of these were Christian, but there were also Rudolf Steiner, Montessori and Jewish schools.

Like state-integrated schools, most private schools were Christian. The older, more prestigious schools were linked to the Anglican and Presbyterian denominations. There were also many smaller, more recently established private schools with a strong Bible-based perspective, and a very few secular private schools.

What do they teach?

Most private and state-integrated schools could be loosely categorised as ‘mainstream’ in what they offered. Academic success, personal strength and wellbeing, and a sense of responsibility were the standard attributes that the schools aimed to provide. Some also offered exclusivity – the fees charged guaranteed that most of those attending would be at least well-to-do.

A less mainstream education was provided by Steiner schools, some of the Christian schools, performing-arts schools and alternative schools (such as Seven Oaks in Christchurch).

Freedom and democracy

Tamariki School in Christchurch is a ‘free school’ – pupils control their own learning, play to learn, and help make the rules and sort out disputes at whole-school meetings. Set up in 1966, Tamariki is the oldest free school in New Zealand, and one of the oldest in the world.

Primary schools were the commonest form of private and state-integrated school. There were also secondary schools, while others took students from year 1 to year 13. In the 1990s and 2000s, some private schools also opened preschools. Children who attended did not necessarily continue on to the parent school once they reached the age of five.

School fees

School fees vary: in 2011 many integrated schools charged fees of $1,500–$5,000 per year. Private schools generally charged $12,000–$19,000 per year, with boarding fees in addition. (State schools ask parents for a donation, which at secondary level was generally less than $700, and at primary level less than $200.)

A cap on funding to private schools, in place from 2000, ended in 2009 when the government increased funding from $39.8 to $49.8 million. The increase included $2.6 million for scholarships for children from low-income families.

Private schools, 1820s to 1990s

First private schools

New Zealand’s first schools were private, set up by missionaries to teach Māori and the children of missionaries in the 1820s. As settlements grew, both church groups and individuals established schools, most of them primary.

When provincial governments became responsible for education from the 1850s, they often simply subsidised existing private schools. A variety of ways were used to gather money – in some areas, parents paid a quarterly fee for each child; in others there was an annual levy.

The response to state education

From 1877 the state provided free and secular primary education to all children, excluding the churches from the education system. In response, the Catholic Church began to set up its own network of schools. Many parishes opened a primary school, and the first Catholic secondary schools were set up in the 1880s.

Protestant churches tried to get prayer and Bible study included in the state system. This continued to be prevented, and in the early 20th century the churches formalised links with existing private schools, providing Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist schools.

Evangelical expansion

Evangelical Christian groups began setting up their own schools in the mid-1960s. They were concerned at what they saw as a lack of deep Christian commitment in existing private schools and the ‘rampant humanism’ of the state education system.1 The first was Middleton Grange School in Christchurch, which opened in 1964. Numbers grew fast – in the 1990s there were nearly 90 Christian schools using a scriptural base for their teaching and school structure. About half of them became state-integrated.

Funding crisis

A steady trickle of government funding and support began in the 1930s. From the 1960s onwards private schools received substantial grants from the government. Initially these grants took the form of a tax rebate and capitation grant, which were given regardless of the wealth of the school. State aid, introduced in 1970, was lower for wealthier schools.

By the 1970s the Catholic education system was in crisis. The cost of running the schools overwhelmed many parishes. Buildings and facilities were run-down to the point that schools were likely to close.

How special?

How special is the character of state-integrated schools? The Catholic school system used to be staffed by clergy or members of religious orders. Dwindling numbers meant that in the 2000s most staff were laypeople, and not all were Catholic. A proportion of parents were described as ‘cafeteria Catholics’ – people who liked the school but had no commitment to the church. Despite such challenges, Catholic education leader Brother Pat Lynch argued in 2006 that integrated schools had ‘to get stronger in terms of what they stand for, because if their special character is not clear and demonstrable, then they have no reason to exist’.2

Faced with the possibility of an influx of Catholic school pupils into a state education system that was already full, the government came to an agreement with private schools. In 1975 the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act was passed. In return for using the state curriculum, the act allowed private schools to gain substantial government funding. They were able to maintain their special character, charge fees and restrict entry.


State integration of church schools was attacked from both sides. Teacher unions and a lobby group set up to oppose the 1975 act argued that religious schools were undermining the secular education system and taking money that should be spent on state schools. Catholic critics argued that the act was a socialist conspiracy designed to rob Catholic schools of their independence. Both complained that the act was designed behind closed doors.

Funding, 1970s to 1990s

After decades of trending upwards, the level of government funding varied widely in the 1970s to 1990s. The state aid introduced in 1970 originally covered 20% of teachers’ salaries, increasing to 50% in 1975. The salary subsidy was progressively removed from 1985 to 1990, then reinstated in 1991 at 20%. This subsidy was in addition to grants existing before 1970.

A new method of calculation introduced in 1995 saw the private schools get a percentage of the average cost of educating a child in the state system. The subsidy increased as the state-system cost did. By 1999 private schools received 30% of the state cost of educating a year 1–10 student, and 40% of the cost of a year 11–13 student. The subsidy was capped in 2000.

  1. ‘A brief summary of the history of Christian schooling in New Zealand.’ New Zealand Association of Christian Schools, , last accessed 8 November 2011. Back
  2. ‘Integrated schools - compromising their character?’ New Zealand Herald, 29 July 2006, (last accessed 21 May 2012)/ Back

Elite private schools

The elite private schools, generously funded, set in spacious grounds, well-equipped and -housed, their pupils immaculately uniformed, are the best-known aspect of private education.

A few of the elite schools were set up in the early colonial period – Christ’s College and Wanganui Collegiate, for example, opened in the 1850s – but most of those operating in the 2000s opened their doors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In some instances the schools went through a number of incarnations – Wellesley College in Eastbourne, for example, opened as the Croydon Preparatory School for Boys in 1914, became the Wellington Diocesan School Days Bay in 1919, then Wellesley in 1940. Changes of ownership accompanied each name change.

Princely imprimateur

The link between the English upper class and the elite private schools was given the royal family’s seal of approval in 1982, when Prince Edward spent six months tutoring at Wanganui Collegiate before going to the University of Cambridge. Although the prince avoided media attention, spending his time teaching, visiting friends and tramping, his presence was an acknowledgement of the school's elite position.

The schools were in some cases a conscious attempt to recreate the English class system or nurture an elite. The early schools, for example, were based on exclusive English schools such as Eton and Rugby (known as ‘public schools’ in the UK). Many were boarding schools, used by well-to-do rural families instead of the local high schools. Such aims ran counter to New Zealand’s strong egalitarian tradition, and a reaction to ‘snob schools’ was a factor in delaying government funding until the late 1930s.

Academic and sporting competition

Students at elite private schools did markedly better in national exams than the average. Dissatisfaction with the NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) system meant that in the 2000s many of the schools also offered the Cambridge and International Baccalaureate exams.


Elite schools’ funding has come from fees, endowments, fundraising by parents, and the government.

Fees charged in 2010 were generally in the $14,000 to $18,000 range; boarding charges almost doubled this to $30,000 to $34,000 per year. The schools benefited from the success of their students and from loyalty to a school demonstrated through endowments. In some instances schools were endowed by a founder or the government.

Māori church boarding schools

Church boarding schools were among New Zealand’s earliest private schools. The first were set up in the early 19th century. By the later 19th century the schools were nurturing leaders who operated effectively in both Māori and Pākehā societies.

Hating school

The ‘strong antipathy to education … [which] existed among the elder Maoris’ was noted early in a report of an elaborate school fete held by St Stephen’s day school near Woodend.1 Enthusiasm for schooling had been evident among Māori in the early 19th century, but this had waned, perhaps because cultural alienation was not appealing.

The schools became warmly regarded and valued by Māori communities. In the later 20th century many of the schools were known for their integration of Māori culture, the academic results of their students and their association with Māori leaders. In the 2000s there were six Māori church schools, all state-integrated. They formed the Tutahi Association in 2009 to work together towards a sustainable future.

Academic success

Until the late 20th century Māori church school students had notably better academic results than Māori attending state schools. This pattern began in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the first Māori doctors, nurses, lawyers and academics appeared. The schools’ academic focus was reduced in the early 20th century by the Department of Education. Its determination to see the Māori church schools teach a manual and technical rather than academic curriculum was backed up by selective withdrawal and provision of funding.

Outstanding success

From 1889 a group of high-achieving Te Aute old boys came to be known as the Young Māori Party. Members included Sir Apirana Ngata, cabinet minister and briefly acting prime minister; Sir Māui Pōmare, one of the first Māori doctors, a leader of the Māori health movement and a cabinet minister; and Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), a doctor, anthropologist, and later director of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawaii.

Although this held back the rate of academic success, in the 1960s the majority of Māori university graduates had attended a church school. Perhaps more importantly for most students, exam pass rates matched those of Pākehā students.

These results were being achieved with a mixed group of students. At the time, ‘at risk’ children referred by the Social Welfare Department (and later the Child, Youth and Family section of the Ministry of Social Development) were admitted to Māori church schools. This continued in the 1980s and 1990s.


The schools suffered from an ongoing lack of money. Buildings, resources, and staff conditions were limited. Some were endowed when set up – for example, Ngāti Kahungunu gave 700 hectares to support Te Aute and its sister school, Hukarere Maori Girls’ College. The churches to which the schools belonged gave some support, as did the government via scholarships.

In 1973 and 1974 St Stephens and Te Aute both became state schools, although their boarding hostels continued to be privately run, and existing staff remained in place. Other Māori boarding schools became state-integrated from 1976.

A number of these schools were not exclusively Māori – for example, St Stephen’s and Wesley College had a mix of Māori, Pacific Island, and Pākehā students. Both schools were accepted and valued by Māori communities as Māori schools. In contrast, the Mormon Church College (1958–2009) was not always so regarded, despite having a high proportion of Māori students and at times a high proportion of Māori staff. The school did not support Māori culture, following Pākehā traditions instead.

    • ‘Maori school fete.’ Star, 23 October 1874, p. 3. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Private education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 31 March 2023)

Story by Megan Cook, published 20 Jun 2012