Transitions from Secondary School

Ngā Whakawhitinga Mai i te Kura Tuarua

Last updated 8 August 2022
Last updated 8 August 2022

Transitions from Secondary School is a foundational piece of research about one of the key groups served by the TEC. It provides a deep and rich understanding of how school leavers decide what to do when they leave school.

To create this, our Insights team analysed data on all 60,000 students that leave school each year, charting what pathways they take next. They then surveyed over 500 school leavers and held in-depth interviews with 56 school leavers across the country, to understand the ‘why’ behind these pathways.

“This is a fundamental step forward in understanding learners across Aotearoa”, says Tim Fowler, TEC Chief Executive. “These last years have been incredibly tough for secondary school learners. Just like me, you’ll be inspired by these learners’ ability to remain resilient, positive and adaptable in the face of constant uncertainty.”

Key findings

The findings cover what the top careers are that students are aspiring to; what skills, knowledge and confidence they need to make their decision; what barriers make the transition most difficult; and what helps them the most. The results show:

  • A growing proportion of school leavers are Māori, Pacific or other ethnic minorities; 15% of school leavers have a disability and 9% are neurodivergent; 82% of leavers have work or caring responsibilities outside school.​
  • Forty percent of school leavers achieve University Entrance (UE), but one in five only achieve NCEA​ Level 1 or less. The majority go​ on to tertiary study, with 36% of those entering foundational levels (1-3). Twenty-nine percent of school leavers​ go straight into the workforce.​
  • More than anything else, school leavers want to do something they enjoy, but their career choices reflect a need to balance enjoyment with practical factors such as pay and job demand. School leavers often dream of creative careers such as being a sportsperson, an actor, or a musician. However, many are planning to pursue trades and community occupations such as becoming a nurse, a builder or a teacher.
  • Factors that prompt students to pivot from a dream to other careers include perceived barriers to entry, job stability and demand. Five key barriers limit their opportunities, especially for learners in under-served groups (Māori, Pacific, women, neurodivergent and disabled learners): the cost of study, lack of connections with their desired pathway, lack of capacity to engage with career decision-making, the impacts of COVID-19, and systemic biases including streaming.
  • Four types of knowledge are needed for an informed decision:
    • orienting (what a learner values, their guiding direction)​
    • focused (what pathways might suit them)​
    • deep (what those options are ‘really like’)​
    • logistical (practical steps to make it happen). ​
  • School leavers need to be equipped with decision-making skills for complex decisions. Even with a full set of information, school leavers can only use it effectively when they also have appropriate decision-making skills​ for this decision, which is usually the first complex decision they have had to make in their lives. These skills include the ability to critique information sources, set goals, and weigh different types of information.
  • Confidence is a common barrier to school leavers doing what they want to do when they leave school, affecting almost half of all school leavers. ‘Champions’ who provide guidance, support and personalized information, are instrumental in normalising feelings of uncertainty and overwhelm, and enabling learners to take a next step.
  • Learners need an environment that makes it safe to experiment with different options before making a decision, and need to be connected into those opportunities. First-hand experiences show learners what a pathway is like, and build learners’ confidence in themselves and their decision.
  • Learners on different kinds of pathways have specific needs. For example, apprenticeship pathways are less accessible to women school leavers, but can be very enabling for those who can access this pathway. Those entering private training establishments tend to have high confidence but some can be influenced by misinformation and mistaken logic, where skills for complex decision-making could help. Learners who are still undecided on their next steps when they leave school showed needs across the spectrum of knowledge, skills and confidence, and need our support the most.

How we’re using the research

The research is already being used across the TEC to support learner-centric decision-making. “It is the role of the TEC to shape a system that equips learners with all they need to succeed. Through development of the Careers System Strategy, initiatives such as Inspiring the Future and Tahatū, our online career planning solution, and in the way we invest in tertiary education, we are working to empower these young New Zealanders to achieve their aspirations and drive positive outcomes for Aotearoa,” says Tim Fowler.

“I would like to thank the learners who took part in this research for their willingness to share their experiences, their uncertainties, insecurities and dreams. The TEC will hold their stories as taonga, learning from them and acting on them to support the best outcomes for school leavers now and in the future.​”


Read the full report: Transitions from Secondary School (PDF 13 MB)

Watch the webinar of key findings: Transitions from Secondary School – Supporting school leavers to create a fulfilling life (50 minutes)

Read the transcript