More young New Zealanders are quitting school early, as a buoyant job market tempts them straight into work without completing Year 13.

Ministry of Education data show that the numbers leaving school aged 17 or under jumped by 8 per cent last year to 34,763, while the numbers leaving aged 18 or over rose by only 1 per cent to 28,677.

The result was a drop in the proportion leaving with University Entrance, down from 40.9 per cent in 2016 to 40.1 per cent last year.

Ministry deputy secretary Dr Craig Jones said many students moved from Year 11 and Year 12 directly into employment.

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"There was an increase of 1.5 per cent in the employment of 15-19 year olds in 2017," he said.

Bianca Pilkington left high school after Year 12, not knowing what she wanted to do but knowing she did not want to go to university.

"I always wanted a physical job and not be stuck inside every day and someone actually suggested to get into the trade," she said.

"Work-wise, if you want to get into the trade [school's] not really essential. I was ready to leave school and get into the working world.

"You get to earn while you learn, it's a win-win."

The 21-year-old is currently an apprentice electrician and recently claimed the Waikato Bay of Plenty regional title in the industrial category of the Master Electricians Apprentice Challenge.

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Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams said the numbers leaving school were normally flat at around 60,000 each year, but suddenly jumped to 63,440 last year.

"That doesn't surprise me because the job market is such that all sectors are asking for numbers well in excess of what school-leaver can provide," he said.

A drive by the previous National Government for 80 per cent of school-leavers to achieve at least Level 2 of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) hit its target in 2016, with 80.8 per cent achieving Level 2.

But the proportion dropped last year for the first time in at least a decade, albeit marginally to 80.7 per cent.

Numbers leaving with at least Level 1 also slipped slightly, from 89.8 per cent to 89.6 per cent.

Numbers leaving with Level 3, normally sat in Year 13, increased fractionally from 54.3 to 54.4 per cent, but those with University Entrance (UE) dropped.

The declines at both Level 2 and UE affected only European students, who were apparently the most likely to be tempted into jobs.

Māori, Pasifika and Asian school-leavers were all slightly more likely to leave with at least Level 2, and with UE, than in 2016 - slightly narrowing a longstanding ethnic gap.

"A higher percentage of both Māori and Pacific students are staying at school until at least age 17, and they are successfully completing higher level qualifications," Jones said.

At UE level, there is still a yawning ethnic disparity with 67 per cent of Asians leaving school with UE, and 45 per cent of Europeans, but only 22 per cent of Pasifika school-leavers and 19 per cent of Māori.

However the gaps have narrowed slightly as the proportions of Māori and Pasifika school-leavers with UE have increased faster than for European students, not just last year but over the past decade.

The gaps are even wider between schools in different socio-economic deciles, and those gaps have actually widened over the past decade.

Only 13.7 per cent of young people leaving school from the poorest (decile 1) schools left with UE last year, up 0.8 points since 2009, compared with 71.3 per cent of decile 10 school-leavers, up 2.1 per cent.

Surprisingly, school-leavers were also more likely to have NCEA Level 2 or above with a "vocational pathway" award in high-decile than in low-decile schools - 43 per cent of school-leavers in the top two deciles against 24.5 per cent of those in the poorest two.

Williams said this was because the largest number of vocational pathway awards were in the creative industries.

"That is the easiest pathway to obtain in school," he said.

"For most of the other five pathways, you have to get sector-related credits that tend to be industry training organisation unit standards."

The data also show fewer school-leavers going on to tertiary study last year.

"These results reflect the last year before first year fees-free tertiary study was introduced," Jones said.

Williams said an increasing number of young people who went to university were later switching into trades. Last year 29 per cent of new industry trainees and apprentices already had degrees, up from 14 per cent in 2010.

The numbers

School-leavers aged 17 and under

2016: 32,233

2017: 34,763

Up 2530 (7.8%)
School-leavers aged 18 and over

2016: 28,397

2017: 28,677

Up 280 (1.0%)