Disruptive classroom behaviour, "disgraceful" bullying rates and stubborn non attendance are being blamed for entrenched achievement problems at our nation's schools.

One in five Kiwi kids leave college unequipped for the workforce and those from our poorest communities are worst off.

While New Zealand's educational achievement ranks highly against other developed nations, our long-term performance is declining.

Min Angh Tran, a Year 10 student at Western Springs College, is part of an accelerated maths class this year. Photo / Michael Craig
Min Angh Tran, a Year 10 student at Western Springs College, is part of an accelerated maths class this year. Photo / Michael Craig

Many of our youngsters feel lonely and unsafe at school.

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And an alarming decline in attitudes towards reading means many Kiwi children no longer read for enjoyment, with spare time increasingly consumed by You Tube, Fortnight and social media.

These are among the findings of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) report, which ranks the educational achievement of 15-year-olds across 36 developed countries.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has labelled our bullying rates a national disgrace. Photo / John Stone
Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has labelled our bullying rates a national disgrace. Photo / John Stone

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says it provides a "sobering message" and "clarion call for action" on our shameful bullying statistics.

Unite Union says the system is failing our poorer communities, leaving unqualified school leavers destined for low-wage labouring and fast-food work, or lifelong welfare dependency.

The report finds New Zealand continues to outperform most OECD nations, ranking seventh in the world for science and eighth for reading, but 22nd for maths.

Our top performing students are among the world's best, compared to OECD averages.

However our entrenched "tail of disadvantage" means too many kids are under-achieving, setting them up for a lifetime of failure.

"About one in five 15-year-olds are not at the level they need to be to function effectively in later life," said Dr Craig Jones, Ministry of Education deputy secretary, evidence, data and knowledge.

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"The difference between students at the top and the bottom is deeply entrenched. We've barely nudged it in 20 years."

While New Zealand's overall results had stabilised, our long-term achievement performance was declining.

Jones said this likely reflected more behavioural problems, bullying and falling attendance figures.

"If you're not there, you're not getting access to the curriculum and you're not learning."

The most "troubling" development was declining attitudes towards reading, with more than half of surveyed New Zealand kids saying they only read if they have to, and 43 per cent not reading for enjoyment.

Anecdotally, this reflected kids spending more time on devices and the internet, and less time reading books.

Children's sense of belonging was also flagged in the report, with more students feeling lonely, awkward or "like an outsider" at school - possibly linked to social media.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says national standards have been an abject failure. Photo / Stephen Parker
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says national standards have been an abject failure. Photo / Stephen Parker

The Pisa study is conducted every three years and considered the most robust international comparison of reading, maths and science abilities.

Jones said the findings would help shape education policy, for instance how to counter persistent bullying rates.

"Fifteen per cent of 15-year-olds report being frequently bullied – double the OECD average.

"That is very concerning and we all need to do more to address this challenge."

The report also showed more than 80 per cent of students were proficient in reading, meaning most kids were gaining critical literacy skills.

"That's great but we have many challenges to address. An increasing number of learners even in senior secondary level are struggling with their reading and there is a particularly strong relationship between socio-economic disadvantage and achievement in New Zealand."

The ministry was investing in children's literacy and strengthening parents' ability to read at home which was crucial to kids' literacy development.

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Judge Becroft said the bullying statistics were a national disgrace.

A co-ordinated governmental response was needed, rather than leaving the problem to "well-meaning boards of trustees".

"If ever there was a clarion call for action, this is it."

He said the worrying proportion of students failing at school was closely linked to child poverty.

"We've got to lift achievement for all New Zealand children. Although we do well internationally, that hides the fact there's a group for whom we need to do much better."

Unite Union national director Mike Treen says students who leave school without qualifications are destined for minimum-wage jobs or welfare dependency. Photo / John Stone
Unite Union national director Mike Treen says students who leave school without qualifications are destined for minimum-wage jobs or welfare dependency. Photo / John Stone

Unite Union national director Mike Treen said the education system was failing disadvantaged communities, setting them up for a lifetime of poverty.

"They'll be stuck in labouring work or fast-food jobs. Usually they are minimum wage."

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the report showed national standards had been a failure.

The Government was developing tools to properly measure student progress and making changes to Tomorrow's Schools to address bullying by creating safe and inclusive schools.

NZ PISA RESULTS

• NZ students rank seventh in OECD for science (up from 12th in 2015).

• NZ students rank eighth in OECD for reading (up from 10th in 2015).

• NZ students rank 22nd in OECD for maths (down from 21st in 2015).

• The average reading score for NZ students was 506, above OECD average of 487.

• The average science score for NZ students was 508, above OECD average of 489.

• The average maths score for NZ students was 494, above OECD average of 489.

• 32 per cent of NZ students reported being bullied at least a few times a month, compared to 23 per cent OECD average.

• 29 per cent of NZ students had skipped a day's school and 48 per cent had arrived late in the last fortnight.

• 18 per cent of students felt lonely at school, compared to OECD average of 16 per cent.

A STUDENT'S PERSPECTIVE

She's still in year 10 but Min Angh Tran has already sat NCEA Level 1 maths a year earlier than most kids her age.

The 15-year-old is in an accelerated maths class at Western Springs College.

While yet to decide on a career, she's toying with medicine, architecture, interior design or dance.

Min Angh Tran, Year 10 student at Western Springs College, says she would step in if she saw a classmate being bullied. Photo / Michael Craig
Min Angh Tran, Year 10 student at Western Springs College, says she would step in if she saw a classmate being bullied. Photo / Michael Craig

Min said she'd had a good year and was looking forward to tackling more NCEA papers next year.

"It's fun. The schoolwork isn't that stressful. There's not too much homework if you can manage your time."

While many Kiwi students report bullying at school, Min said she hadn't encountered it but would step in if she saw a classmate being bullied "to help them find a solution".

"Personally, I don't think I've ever been bullied. Certainly there are mean people but I wouldn't consider that bullying."

In terms of educational achievement, she knew some students were weren't motivated at school. Others had learning disabilities like dyslexia which affected their learning.

Every student had potential, she believed, but some struggled in the traditional classroom environment.