Primary School in New Zealand as seen by a Finn/Dane

OECD PISA 2018 results for New Zealand, Denmark and Finland

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) examines what students know in reading, mathematics and science, and what they can do with what they know. It provides the most comprehensive and rigorous international assessment of student learning outcomes to date.

More about PISA tests

I am not trying to analyze these results. However, I want to say that these figures represent the past – what ever is going on in the schools at the moment, are not shown in these charts.

Based on these numbers I would say the difference between the schools in Denmark, Finland and New Zealand are not huge. I don´t want our twins to go to an elite school, having to cope with all that pressure at the age of 10. I want them to be kids as long as possible and enjoy their school and education and learn to love learning new things. Their school in Denmark and here in New Zealand are doing just that and I am a fan. It´s been too long for me to say anything about the Finnish system – which once was the best in the world, according to PISA. I loved my school years in Finland and I hope they get those curves back upwards again.

The New Zealand primary schools in short

Most kids start the school the year they turn 5 in New Zealand – which is one year earlier than in Denmark and Finland. The school consists of 13 years – which indicates how many years the kid has gone to school. So instead of saying my kid is on the 3rd grade, in New Zealand you say my kid is on year X.

There are basically 2 kinds of primary schools, contributing and full primary schools. Contributing schools are more common. The contributing primary school is for years 1-6 and then you need to enroll your kid to intermediate school, which is for years 7 and 8. The full primary school is for years 1-8.

There are private schools (often based on religion) but most kids go to the public/state school based on their home address. The towns are divided into school zones and the kid goes to the school based on the school zone for her home address. This is the same in Denmark and Finland.

The school year is divided into 4 terms in New Zealand. The first term starts after summer holiday (5-6 weeks in New Zealand) around early February. The terms run around 10 weeks and between terms 1-3 there is a 2-week-holiday. The school day (at least in our school) is from 9AM to 3PM, every day, for year 5 kids. You need to bring your own lunch box and you need to wear a school uniform (each school has its own). There are no terms in Danish or Finnish schools. The kids get breaks during Xmas, winter, Easter and autumn. I personally like the New Zealand system with several breaks during the year. As I work from home as a freelancer, I can plan these breaks into my calendar, and we don´t have any problems with childcare etc.

Physical environment in the school

Our twins go to a relatively small full primary school (for years 1-8). They have around 500 pupils in the school in total. That is half the size compared to the school they went to in Denmark.

There are plenty of outdoor activities for the kids. They even have a heated community pool right next to the school and the teacher told me, that they use it almost daily when it is open (closed for the coldest winter months).

Inside the premises, New Zealand schools seem to have changed into “modern learning environments”. You can read the more detailed description here. 2 classes (or years) were sitting basically in the same big room with some possibility to divide them with glass walls. That means approximately 50 kids and 2 teachers. The furniture and equipment were modern. Due to the Covid-19 situation, I have only been able to visit the school a couple of times. The twins are not complaining about the big group or noise. This is something that they were complaining about a lot back in Denmark (the constant noise in the classroom). However, the other one has been a bit sad sometimes, that they are listening long time to something (that she is not able to understand) and that she thinks it is boring. This is my overachiever kid. The other one is probably fine, in her own thoughts 🙂 So the pedagogical approach is maybe different in New Zealand than in Denmark. In Denmark the kids were doing a lot by themselves – finding out about things online and presenting to others. In New Zealand they are made to listen to the teacher more. This might also be a sign of more discipline in the classroom? I don´t think the twins´ Danish class would have stayed silent and listened to any other speaker than maybe a famous youtuber or Ariana Grande…

Learning and everyday life in school

The kids use a school uniform in schools in New Zealand. Our school has a pretty relaxed uniform – the girls have a polo shirt and navy blue pants. They can also have a skirt or shorts. We have grown fond of the uniforms – no time wasted in the mornings thinking about what to wear. The only stress is on me – to keep an extra pair of shirts clean all the time.

The kids address their teacher by Ms/Mrs/Mr and last name. We adults, parents and teachers, are on first name terms. The twins did not have problems learning this – although in Denmark they called their teacher by her first name.

One thing they do here in New Zealand is that they mix the groups every year. That, for a Nordic person, feels strange. I had the same classmates the first 6 years of my life. I don´t know how they do it here in our school, but it will happen early next year. I hope that they keep the twins together, the minimum. But I have faith in the girls´ teacher – I´m sure she and the rest of the staff will look into relationships between the kids. But it will be exciting to see how they do it and how the twins will handle it.

The twins told me that their teacher hardly ever gets angry. I asked them if this was because she did not have to get angry or because she dealt with problematic situations differently. The answer was, that she did not have to get angry, as the kids do what they are told to do. If the teacher tells them to be quiet, they obey. This was definitely not the case in Denmark. I have to say I adored the twins´ teacher in Denmark but she did have a handful with few kids in the class that had problems staying quiet.

The modern learning spaces have been told to be noisier than the old fashioned classrooms. However, the twins have reported, that their group is at least not noisier, than their class in Denmark. They seem to use computers when learning (by themselves and in groups) and use different approaches in learning, such as going around and photographing nature and finding mathematic forms. They also sing a lot, learn Maori language and even sign language and prepare theatre plays together.

The kids spend time outside a lot – the benefits not really having a real winter at all. Well, back in the days (in the middle ages) when I went to school in Finland, it had to be VERY cold for us to have permission to stay inside during recession. Very cold meant -18C or colder 🙂

The school offers activities, and the kids can for example go to piano lessons during the school hours. The twins start art course next month. The kids get picked up at school after lessons and they go together to the community house to do art for two hours. These extracurricular activities are not free but they are not free in Denmark either. What makes it easier here is that the parents don´t have to drive the kids around.

I have not even learned all the possibilities but it looks like almost anything is possible here from surfing to horseback riding and rugby. We have decided to take it easy and start one hobby at the time to find the most exciting one(s). During the school holiday there is a possibility to try out different things and we have booked a tennis camp and horseback riding tour. It is so easy, when everything is walking distance and relatively cheap – horseback riding and tennis (one camp day, 2,5hrs) cost about 21€/day.

So far we have been more than happy with the school, what they do, and how they do it. As long as the girls are happy to go to school (most of the) mornings, I am happy with what they do. The most important is the willingness to learn and that they feel good about the school and other kids. The learning will follow.

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