The number of children dropping out of school before the age of 16 is at an all-time low - despite an international report warning that New Zealand's overall school dropout rate remains among the highest in the developed world.
Fifteen-year-old dropouts have declined steadily from a peak of nearly 4000 in 2007, figures released under the Official Information Act show.
Principals attribute the improvement to a Ministry of Education crackdown on early leavers, and to the bedding-in of National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) - though fewer job opportunities for teenagers may also help account for it.
Boys are still more likely to drop out of school at 15 than girls, with Maori also over-represented in those students granted ministry permission to leave school early.
So far this year, 165 students have been granted early leaving exemptions by the ministry. That compares with 313 last year, and 655 in 2008.
More than half the early leavers this year have been Maori, with twice the number of boys leaving early than girls overall.
School is compulsory for everyone aged between 6 and 16, but parents of 15-year-olds can seek an exemption on the basis of educational problems, conduct, or the unlikelihood of the student benefiting from further schooling.
Parents are required to detail training programmes or employment to which the student will be moving.
The ministry tightened its rules in 2007, after leaving exemptions were revealed to have blown out to nearly 4000.
Secondary Principals' Association president Tom Parsons said the decline was due to an increasing focus on keeping students engaged.
"We've gotten smarter as educators, and we're more effective in looking towards [at-risk] learners."
Students who were less academic could fall through the cracks more easily in the past, but there were now more options for them.
Wainuiomata High School principal Murray Isberg said the introduction of NCEA had given schools the ability to "create more courses to engage more students".
His school had sports and hospitality academies, which allowed students to gain NCEA credits and vocational training.
But Taita College principal John Murdoch warned some children were still falling through the cracks when families moved, and failed to enrol them in school again.
One teenager arrived at Taita having not attended any school for months, and had been at more than 20 schools in her lifetime.
Earlier this month the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expressed concerns about New Zealand's overall school dropout rate.
The overall dropout rate - in which the OECD includes all those who do not complete "upper secondary education" - is almost 34 per cent, more than double the European Union average of 15 per cent.
Education Minister Hekia Parata said the Government was working with schools to achieve the target of 85 per cent of 18 year olds having level 2 or better by 2017. In 2011, 74 per cent of 18 year olds achieved this.
"That involves focusing on priority groups and on schools with currently low levels of retention or qualification achievement."
There were more efforts to "actively discourage" early leaving, and investing in alternative pathways for students.
- © Fairfax NZ News