A Northland teen who started working at 9 to help pay his family's bills says he eventually quit school in a bid to keep a roof over his head.
Steve Brown* is one of the many Northland students to leave high school and pursue a path away from formal tertiary education.
The latest data, from 2019, revealed the region had the highest number of school leavers not opting for university or any other education provider.
Learning wasn't an issue for Brown, who was academically among the top 3 per cent of students in the country.
That was until Year 12 when he quit school after it "failed" to consistently support him as he coped with severe bullying and a broken home life.
Brown had started working aged 9 – weaving harakeke to be able to help his mother pay bills.
Although his mum was "working as much as she could", he said it was still difficult to make ends meet and she soon fell back into alcoholism.
Brown's situation at home deteriorated to the point where he moved out and became a self-reliant 15-year-old.
"I used to wake up at 6am, go to school, go straight to work from school, finish work at 11pm, go home and repeat."
Amid that, he had to make time for extracurricular activities, homework and studying so he could secure good grades.
When he moved out the teen was given $300 a week from the Government - $250 of which was spent on his boarding fees.
Brown had to pick up extra work to pay the $60 needed for bus tickets so he could attend school.
"I had to pay for my uniform, my school textbooks, trips, and all the extra stuff just to pursue education," he said.
"I had nothing. I wasn't able to buy what I needed, wasn't able to go out and have fun."
While Brown juggled part-time jobs like busking, waiting tables, and sales to support his education, he continued to achieve high excellence in school while achieving major milestones in the performing arts and in the national youth orchestra.
"...and I still got nothing," he said. "The Ministries of Social Development, Youth Development, Education – everyone failed me.
"The only answer I got anywhere I went was you don't qualify because you are on the independent youth payment and not on orphan youth payment."
Brown's circumstances exhausted and mentally taxed him to the point where he couldn't get out of bed.
Needing money to pay bills, he began to miss out on school as he worked "extreme hours" instead.
"All these things and the lack of education around independent youth in the education sector made me feel I was so inadequate and unworthy of doing anything because I had to do things that other people didn't," Brown said.
The high achieving student had planned to undertake a double major in business and economics alongside studying theatre.
But the lack of support from within the education system made him change plans.
Instead Brown opted to study at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, where he said the support had provided "more than the mainstream education system has or will ever achieve".
Every year nearly 60,000 school leavers nationwide - roughly 2000 in Northland - face choices about what to do next.
Twenty-six per cent of the 2008 Northland students who left school in 2019 enrolled in certificates or diplomas; 19 per cent undertook graduate certificates and diplomas or bachelor's degrees, and 9 per cent studied for level 1 or 2 certificates.
However, the majority - 45 per cent - of those former students did not enrol in tertiary education one year after leaving school.
The progression of Northland students toward university was 26 per cent in 2019 compared with the national average of 35 per cent.
Northland Secondary Schools Principals' Association president Alec Solomon said universities weren't the only game in town.
The "renaissance" in trade had a lot of students exploring their options, he said.
Solomon said while universities had "done a pretty good job" at fulfilling students wanting a tertiary qualification, the pandemic had changed the university experience as learning moved online.
"And there are opportunities for permanent full-time employment straight out of school, particularly in trades," he said.
He noted how on March 1 Tai Tokerau had more than 600 trade academy places for secondary school students.
He said we should be celebrating the "really meaningful" 655 placements that would help students "go into meaningful locations" that weren't necessarily tertiary fields.
The trades academy places were in the Far North down to Kaipara which provided accessibility to far more students, Solomon said.
"Anyone offering opportunities to students will be successful when they are ready to meet the students' needs and I think trades have done that and are doing that."
He said schools endeavoured to help students transition smoothly into their post-school careers and training via career advisers and gateway placements.
*Person's name has been changed to protect their privacy.