More 15-year-olds are staying at school, new figures show - and many of those who leave have jobs.
One Rotorua principal says fewer students were leaving school because they wanted the security and predictability of the classroom.
The teenagers who did pursue employment were attracted by opportunities in sectors including horticulture and forestry.
Data released by the Ministry of Education under the Official Information Act reveal 101 students in the Bay of Plenty-Waiariki region were granted an Early Leaving Exemption in 2019, compared to 86 last year.
Children in New Zealand aged 6 to 16 must be enrolled in school but the ministry says a 15-year-old can get permission to leave early in "exceptional circumstances".
Rotorua Girls' High School principal Sarah Davis said the drop in Bay of Plenty-Waiariki figures showed schools were "trying to do far more" to support students to stay.
"Staff are trying to keep the girls here, and trying to keep the girls engaged in learning. The fact those numbers are dropping like they are is good news."
She also believed school could have become a "more secure option" for students with the emergence of Covid-19 last year.
"In 2020 and 2021, students chose to stay at school because they knew it was a more predictable pathway for them over other things happening outside in the community."
Davis said requests for exemptions at the school were "student- and whānau-driven".
She said numbers were low but the majority of students who left had taken up courses in hospitality, hairdressing and tourism.
"That might be another reason there isn't the same uptake. Those opportunities have decreased in the community as well."
Rotorua Boys' High School principal Chris Grinter said the Ministry of Education granted the school about six exemptions each year. The school's roll stood at 1100.
This number had been "pretty steady" over recent years and in "virtually all cases" exemptions related to boys who had found employment opportunities they wanted to pursue.
He said exemption numbers were small but described the opportunity as "positive".
"These boys in some cases are not particularly engaged in their schooling and a work opportunity appeals.
"This is perhaps something that is more common in centres where opportunities in the primary sector are more common, for example, farming, horticulture, forestry."
Tauranga Boys' College principal Robert Mangan said exemptions were beneficial to students who were ready to take up employment or further education.
Exemption requests were often initiated by students whose learning needs were not being met in a school setting, he said.
"There is a number of boys who don't need to be here in a time-serving capacity, and there is a level of different maturity at different ages.
"Some 15-and-a half-year-olds are well ready to be in a workplace.
"Although we try and provide a broad, engaging and rich curriculum some don't see the relevance."
Ministry of Education operations and integration leader Sean Teddy said carers could request an exemption for their child but not schools.
"The rules are very strict and it's important that parents have considered and discussed all the other options to help their child stay at school and gain a qualification first."
The rate of exemptions had dropped by about 80 per cent since the process was strengthened in 2006, he said.
"There was a further decrease in 2020 which may be a result of the pandemic."
Common pathways for these students were employment, work experience, alternative education, Te Kura and trades and service academies.
"While we know that staying in formal education provides young people with advantages ... some students are facing situations where leaving before they turn 16 is the best option," Teddy said.
Decisions on exemption applications were made by the ministry after discussing the situation with the student's carers and the school.
A plan needed to be in place for students work or training options, Teddy said.
By the numbers
There were 56 students in the Bay of Plenty-Waiariki region who received an Early Leaving Exemption in 2016. This jumped to 115 in 2018 and dropped to 101 students in 2019.
In 2020, only 86 students in the region were granted an exemption.
Nationwide figures show 476 students across the country were granted an exemption in 2016, which increased to 762 in 2019.
There were 669 New Zealand students who received an exemption in 2020.
This data was accurate as of October 22 and is subject to change.