A low-decile Māori boarding school that bans cellphones has hit the top 10 for University Entrance in this year's high-school league tables.

Decile-2 St Joseph's Māori Girls' College in Napier has come sixth in the list, with 23 out of 24 students in its Year 13 class last year gaining University Entrance (UE) and Level 3 of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

The Catholic school's head of English, Radne Ardern, a cousin of the Prime Minister, said the school succeeded because of a strict regime including no mobile phones, even though two-thirds of the 213 students are boarders.

"Literally, they are taken off them and not given back," she said.

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"The day girls are allowed to bring them to school but they have to leave them at the office and collect them again at the end of the day."

The college joins three other private Hawke's Bay schools in the top six in the latest data provided by the NZ Qualifications Authority.

The UE list was topped by two high-decile private girls' schools in Havelock North, Woodford House and Iona College. All except one of the final-year students at both schools gained UE - 53 out of 54 at Woodford and 41 out of 42 at Iona.

Another private Hawke's Bay school, Lindisfarne College for boys in Hastings, was also in the top six, along with Rangi Ruru, a Presbyterian girls' school in Christchurch, and Baradene College, a Catholic girls' school in Auckland.

St Joseph's results are surprising because the national data shows huge gaps between high and low decile schools. On average 65 per cent of final-year students in schools in the richest three deciles gained UE, compared with only 28 per cent of students in the poorest three deciles.

The wealth divide was reflected in the ethnic data: 61 per cent of Asians and 55 per cent of Europeans in Year 13 achieved UE, but only 29 per cent of both Māori and Pasifika students.

A student in last year's Year 13 group who was one of the 23 to gain UE at St Joseph's, Grace Hemara-Tylden, said the school encouraged all girls to succeed.

"The school culture is that we have to do well to make a better future for ourselves," she said.

Dame Georgina Kingi received a special award at the Waiata Māori Music Awards last year. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today, File
Dame Georgina Kingi received a special award at the Waiata Māori Music Awards last year. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today, File

She comes from Waima, in the Hokianga area, and attended Northland College up to Year 11 before her grandparents paid for her to go to St Joseph's in her final two years of school, and said the move "made all the difference". She is now at Otago University.

"The environment at St Joseph's was a lot more stable, and all the teachers and the principal encourage you to achieve, whereas in Northland College it was kind of the opposite," she said.

"The school teaches us to be comfortable with who we are and to be comfortable with being Māori, and that we can be anything that we want to be.

"Also, because it was a boarding school, we were away from home, and it was also a way of repaying our parents for having sent us to the school - we repay them by doing well."

Ardern said classes were small and teachers returned to the school in the evenings during the third term each year to give the girls extra tuition.

"They start doing study at Year 7, they do one session in the evening. By the time they reach Year 9 they have two sessions a night," she said.

The college also invites whānau to stay and cook for the senior girls during a pre-exam study weekend every Labour weekend.

She said the college's long-serving principal, Dame Georgina Kingi, ran "a tight ship" and the girls responded to it.

"Miss Kingi's discipline is something that is admired by the whānau," she said.

"I really think they like structure. They like to know what they are doing, when they are doing it, why they are doing it.

"I taught at a co-ed with a high Māori population before I came here and I treated the kids all the same. I came here and I just was blown away by the fact that they all stood silently at the beginning and did a karakia. That was quite a settling thing. And then they said thank you as they left the class."

She said kapa haka and sports were compulsory, but so were academic subjects.

"They are all required to do a course that would get them UE," she said.

"They usually get their UE in Māori, which is offered from Year 7, and they get it in Religious Education, which they have to take from Year 7, and usually English and one other subject."

Although the fees are $13,000 a year, Ardern said the school was not "elitist" and drew Māori girls from all over New Zealand and Australia.

"We have a waiting list for students from CYFS or whatever it's called now [Ōranga Tamariki] because we are seen as a safe place where they can achieve," she said.

Grace Hemara-Tylden, who is now studying indigenous development and education at Otago, said the whole NZ education system could learn from St Joseph's.

"Within our education system, teachers need to be more encouraging towards Māori and Pasifika students," she said.

"That needs to be embedded in the culture of the school, just the way it has been for our girls, because at St Joseph's it has created a great sense of belonging.

"I think if that was embedded at other schools, Māori and Pasifika students would do well and achieve at the same rate as European and Asian students."