The order seems to be as usual when looking at the latest NCEA results - at the top are the rich schools and at the bottom, their poorer cousins.

But deep in the statistics shines something bright. It is the long-maligned, low-decile schools fighting back, clawing their way up the charts in huge chunks of improvement, the product of nothing but hard work.

"We are very excited," says the principal of Nga Tapuwae, Arihia Stirling. "We have made a huge shift ... it has shocked us in our trenches, but we are now at the highest point of Maori medium education."

Nga Tapuwae, a decile one Kura a Iwi or tribal immersion school, is one of those leading the way for NCEA results in South Auckland.

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Its results - a 100 per cent pass rate for its 23 NCEA level one students - stand out even among the best of the best - St Kentigern College, St Mary's College, Baradene College of the Sacred Heart, which all regularly achieve at 95 per cent and above.

Ms Stirling says the secret is hard work and a commitment to teaching kids in a style they respond to.

"We are here to serve them, not just to collect a paycheque.

"That includes teachers respecting the knowledge kids bring to the classroom and being responsive to their needs."

Other South Auckland schools are hoping for the same results. And some are getting there.

NCEA statistics show that from 2014, schools like Sir Edmund Hillary increased their scores by up to 37 per cent. That was at level one.

Results at level two are at an 85 per cent pass rate.

Down the road at James Cook College, there were increases of up to 26 per cent, while in Onehunga, 30 per cent more students passed level one, taking the school average to 63.3 per cent.

In comparison with the big boys - like St Kentigern, St Cuthbert's College, Sancta Maria College and Diocesan School for Girls - the South Auckland results pale.

But for schools such as Mangere College, where this year level one results have improved by 70 per cent - seeing 65 per cent of students pass - it is the result of a long campaign.

Mangere College principal John Heyes said its improvement had been tracking upwards for 12 years.

He said the school had actively sought external support in its staff pedagogical development and also enlisted focused help for its students from outside mentors including the University of Auckland.

"Since 2010, we have worked with the University of Auckland in the Starpath Project, which has seen us place increased emphasis on the academic counselling work that we provide our students," Mr Heyes said.

The Starpath Project was launched in 2005 to help secondary school students who were not meeting the criteria to get into university. The initiative has a particular focus on improving results among Maori and Pasifika pupils and students from poorer backgrounds.

Mr Heyes said: "We've also revised the way we report to our parental community - holding parent/ student/ teacher conferences led by our form teachers."

Many South Auckland schools still remain at the bottom of the table, however. Papakura, Tamaki, Auckland Seventh-day Adventist High School, Aorere College, Papatoetoe and Onehunga were all at the bottom of the achievement figures.

In Otahuhu, only 47 per cent of kids passed NCEA level one, down 22 per cent on last year.

And one of the lowest figures came from a Maori immersion school, Te Kura Kaupapa Maori A Rohe O Mangere - it gained just 12.5 per cent at level one.

Some of the statistics will be anomalies - Auckland Grammar, for example, one of the country's best schools, is in the lowest level of results. But as most of its students sit Cambridge exams, the statistics do not reflect academic performance.

Other schools have external issues affecting them, such as Nga Kakano Christian Reo E Rua Kura, which last year dealt with the highly publicised case of its principal hitting a pupil.

Te Rangi Allen of Nga Kakano Christian Kura in Henderson admitted slapping the 14-year-old boy with the back of his hand in a classroom last June. The school's NCEA Level 1 pass rate dropped 42.9 per cent to 50 per cent.

Nationally the achievement rate for NCEA Level 2 increased from 85.7 per cent in 2013 to 86.8 per cent in 2014. Since 2010, Year 12 achievement rates have risen by 7 percentage points.

The same data show the 2014 Level 1 rate is up by a hefty 7.6 percentage points since 2010 and the Level 3 rate is up 4.4 percentage points over the same period.