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An unfair playing field

New Zealand has one of the most unequal education systems in the world and the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is being exacerbated by the effects of poverty

New Zealand has one of the most unequal education systems in the world and the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is being exacerbated by the effects of poverty, according to new research by UNICEF.

The UNICEF Innocenti Report Card looks at the gaps between the highest and lowest performing pupils in OECD countries. New Zealand ranked 33rd of 38 for educational inequality across preschool, primary school and secondary school levels.

UNICEF NZ Executive Director, Vivien Maidaborn, says it is further evidence of how many Kiwi kids face an unfair disadvantage from their very early years.

“This report is a bit like an x-ray. It can show us what is broken, but it doesn’t explain the reason it ended up that way,” says Ms Maidaborn.

“What we can see form the report is that our education system is working well for some children, and not well for others. Our education system splits children into achievers and non-achievers. The challenge is how we ensure that all children get the same chance to succeed.

A further analysis, commissioned by UNICEF NZ, found that Māori and Pacific children are less likely to receive the same opportunities as Pākehā and Asian children, as they are disproportionately affected by financial and material hardship, and a system that doesn’t meet their needs.

“It’s about fairness. Every child has the right to an education, and their success shouldn’t come down to what Mum or Dad do for work, or the neighbourhoods they grow up in. We need to make sure the keys to success are made available for every child,” says Andre Whittaker, UNICEF NZ Director of Child Rights.

“Bringing the lowest-performing children up, doesn’t mean pulling the highest-performing children down.”

New Zealand has the second largest gap in reading comprehension for primary school, the second worst gap between girls and boys, and ranks in the bottom third of countries across all three categories.

New Zealand also has the worst rate of bullying in the OECD, with just under 60% of students experiencing bullying either weekly or monthly - more than twice the rate of the countries with the lowest rates.

The analysis also found that children with parents in professional jobs such as managers, nurses, engineers, doctors and teachers are more likely to continue into higher education than those with parents in perceived low-status jobs.

And in all countries, children with at least one professional parent had significantly higher reading scores than the children of non-professionals.

UNICEF says this is an opportunity for all governments to introduce policies aimed at closing the gaps in educational performance:

Guarantee high-quality, early childhood education and care for all children

- Ensure that all children achieve a good minimum level of core skills

- Reduce the impact of socio-economic inequalities

- Close the gender gaps in achievement

- Produce better data

- Focus on equality, not just averages

Read more here

For more information:

Lachlan Forsyth, +64 21 517 449, (until October 26)

Ethan Donnell, + 64 27 205 1452,

Shelley Knowles, + 64 27 495 5598,


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.