A report showing up to two-thirds of New Zealand university students don't complete their undergraduate degrees in the standard three years is evidence of how crucial it is for school leavers to have a strong idea of their career path, a leading educationalist believes.
Thea Kilian, principal at ACG Tauranga, one of five independent schools operated by ACG Education in New Zealand, says if secondary school students lack direction and clarity about their reason for being at university then things can "all fall apart."
"While many students think they have to go to university, some who do are unsure of their career path," she says. "And if they have no clear sense of purpose this can impact on their study."
Kilian says while "knowing what you want in a career" is crucial motivation for students, they also need support in many other ways to prepare them for life after school – emotional and social skills and how to cope with stress among them.
Russell Brooke, principal of ACG Parnell College in Auckland, agrees and says from January next year the school will include a new university-like campus (integrating students from ACG Senior College) to help meet unique needs of senior students such as independence and tutorial-style classes.
Although he is aware of the university drop-out rate across New Zealand, he believes ACG schools are faring well by comparison.
"Anecdotally we hear they (students) are doing very well," he says. "What I can say is all our students want to be here (at school) and many have a very deliberate focus on what they want to do after leaving."
These comments come in the wake of figures reported in the New Zealand media in 2016 that revealed only 34 per cent of those who started full-time university degrees in 2011 or 2012 finished within three years, the standard length of a bachelor-level course.
Although this figure seems low, up to 74 per cent of students are completing their degrees within six years according to Ministry of Education figures released in September last year (in 2016 119,000 New Zealanders completed a higher education qualification, a third of which were bachelor degrees or postgraduate qualifications).
Kilian says young people today live in a 24/7 world. "They are constantly connected and operating at high levels of expectation; this adds a different level of stress and unless they receive support some can find this difficult to cope with."
Kilian believes the Cambridge International curriculum offered at ACG Tauranga allows students some respite from constant pressure. "I've worked with the NCEA system (the national qualification in state secondary schools) for a long time (she was previously deputy principal at Long Bay College in Auckland) and under that system students are in assessment mode all the time.
"The Cambridge curriculum has three assessment high pressure points during the year, but also allows for periods of recovery for students."
Kilian says it is important senior students have a strong sense of belonging, are acknowledged as young adults within clear parameters, develop as leaders, be allowed to specialise and be passionate about things they are interested in and understand who they are and where they fit into the school culture.
"In order for our children to achieve success both at and beyond school, it is imperative that they are part of a strong community," she says. "They absolutely must feel safe, connected and engaged if they are to reach their full potential."
"At the younger ages it is important students keep their career options open but by year 12 it is becoming more crucial for them to really start focusing on what they want to do."
ACG Tauranga opened in 2015, initially for years one to nine. Next year it will have year 13 students for the first time.
ACG Parnell College's new Senior Campus will continue to offer both the Cambridge curriculum and a second international qualification pathway, the International Baccalaureate (IB), an academically challenging and balanced programme that prepares students for success at university and life beyond by addressing their intellectual, social, emotional and physical well-being.
Tessa Barker, a year 12 student, believes space at the school unique to senior students will be a "fantastic opportunity for us to settle into a creative and independent environment which I hope will foster more social and personal development opportunities.
"As teenagers reaching our last few years of high school, I think we like to think we have our independence down pat," she says. "Being in a school already highly tailored to university-style life is that last bit of support and guidance around the paths we will face as young adults."
Brooke says the senior campus will provide students with a degree of freedom and self-responsibility designed to prepare them for life at university.
"There will still be structure, classes, tutorials, homework and outstanding teaching," he says.
"Outside of classes we will be operating a trust-based model designed to teach self-responsibility. Teachers will still be watching and intervening when necessary, there is a caring safety net.
"We have passionate and highly qualified teachers and this means our students are given every opportunity to go soaring with the eagles all the time."