Exploring Physical Education in New Zealand (Aotearoa): Part of the 2021 Series

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Exploring Physical Education in New Zealand

This blog series seeks to explore how Physical Education is designed and practiced in countries around the world. The intention is to give insight and hopefully inspiration to help improve it for all young people, both now and for the future.

If you have insight from a country we have not yet covered, then we would love to hear from you, please get in touch.

UNESCO published its ‘Quality Physical Education’ (QPE) guidelines for policymakers back in 2017. It includes a great video clip and infographic identifying some of the wide range of benefits of QPE and the following extract reminding us that PE is not just a nice to have in education, it is a human right for all children and young people!

“Every human being has a fundamental right of access to physical education and sport, which are essential for the full development of his personality. The freedom to develop physical, intellectual and moral powers through physical education and sport must be guaranteed both within the educational system and in other aspects of social life.”

The UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport (1978)

Exploring Aotearoa | New Zealand

In Context

The first question you may have is why is the word Aotearoa in front of New Zealand (NZ)? Aotearoa is the name of the country given by Māori, who are indigenous to NZ. This makes New Zealand a bicultural country, and this is honoured with a Treaty signed in 1840 between European settlers and Māori. You might already know that NZ has two main islands (North Island and South Island) but it also has a third, called Stewart Island, which is positioned below the South Island. Around NZ there are over 700 smaller islands to the southwest of Australia in the Pacific Ocean. Fun fact, NZ is positioned so low on some maps, it is often left off! The population of New Zealand stood at just under 5 million people in 2019, but with many people returning home during COVID, estimations have this just over 5 million. Comparatively, this is slightly less people than Scotland, and significantly less than the population of London. Over 1.6 million of inhabitants live in Auckland, and Wellington is the capital city. The population has grown steadily from about 2 million in 1960. Whilst most people think New Zealand is incredibly small, this image below shows that they aren’t that tiny at all! The land mass is over three times the size of Scotland at 268,000 km2.

According to the 2018 census, 70% of New Zealand’s population is of European descent, with indigenous Māori being the next largest (16.5 percent), followed by Asians (15.3 percent), and then non-Māori Pacific Islanders (9.0 percent).

In NZ, most schools in New Zealand are state-owned, and teach a nationally set curriculum. The National Curriculum is composed of The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) (used in an English medium) and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (used in a Māori medium) and both set the direction for student learning and provide guidance for schools. Even though the NZC is used in an English medium in mainstream education, nowadays you will commonly hear te reo Māori (Māori language) words, and there will be many Māori concepts or frameworks being used. Something you may not have known is that te reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) are both official languages of New Zealand (The Māori Language Act 1987 and the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006), and English is actually a de facto official language! Because of its widespread use however, English remains the most common medium for teaching and learning in NZ schools. Please note that this blog centres on the NZC (English medium curriculum).

 There are some privately owned schools, and these are often based on specific philosophic or religious traditions. Generally speaking, at the primary level the NZC is used to assess learning, and at a secondary level the NZC is used alongside the qualification National Certificate Educational Achievement (NCEA). Some secondary schools also offer Cambridge International Examinations and International Baccalaureate programmes.

When students leave secondary schooling there are a range of options at the tertiary level. Some of them include; Physical Education, Teaching, Sport Coaching, Strength and Conditioning, Public Health, Health Promotion, Personal Training, Leadership etc. Many universities are open to taking combinations of papers to best suit personal needs and professional aspirations.

In Policy

In Aotearoa NZ, physical education isn’t separate from health and aspects of home economics (nutrition, societal behaviour, cultural and sustainable food practices etc). This means that in NZ, when they talk about PE, they are referring to HPE (health & physical education). HPE is one of 8 learning areas, and sits alongside others like Maths, Languages, and English etc. There is a focus on the well-being of students, other people around them and the society in which they live. Learning is done through health-related and movement contexts.

Four underlying and interdependent concepts are at the heart of this HPE learning area:

  • Hauora1– a Māori philosophy of well-being that includes the dimensions taha wairua, taha hinengaro, taha tinana, and taha whānau, each one influencing and supporting the others.
  • Attitudes and values – a positive, responsible attitude on the part of students to their own well-being; respect, care, and concern for other people and the environment; and a sense of social justice.
  • The socio-ecological perspective – a way of viewing and understanding the interrelationships that exist between the individual, others, and society.
  • Health promotion – a process that helps to develop and maintain supportive physical and emotional environments and that involves students in personal and collective action.

Learning area structure:

The learning activities in health and physical education arise from the integration of the four concepts above, the following four strands and their achievement objectives, and seven key areas of learning.

The four strands are:

  1. Personal health and physical development, in which students develop the knowledge, understandings, skills, and attitudes that they need in order to maintain and enhance their personal well-being and physical development
  2. Movement concepts and motor skills, in which students develop motor skills, knowledge and understandings about movement, and positive attitudes towards physical activity
  3. Relationships with other people, in which students develop understandings, skills, and attitudes that enhance their interactions and relationships with others
  4. Healthy communities and environments, in which students contribute to healthy communities and environments by taking responsible and critical action.

The seven key areas of learning are:

  1. Mental health
  2. Sexuality education
  3. Food and nutrition
  4. Body care and physical safety
  5. Physical activity
  6. Sport studies
  7. Outdoor education

All seven areas are to be included in teaching and learning programmes at both primary and secondary levels.

The four strands have a spiralling effect, meaning that learning is progressive and should build as students move through their schooling years. Children start formal schooling at Level 1, around the age of five, and they progress through to Level 8 which is around 17/18 years of age. There are specific learning objectives per Levels 1 – 8 to guide teachers in selecting the experiences most appropriate for their students.

For example, a teacher of a group of 13-year-old students could select a learning outcome at Level 4, such as:

“Identity, sensitivity, and respect: Demonstrate an understanding of how attitudes and values relating to difference influence their own safety and that of other people.”

The teacher would select this learning outcome, and then teach this through a key area of learning, drawing on the underlying concepts (see above). So, for example, the lesson could look like students sharing a cultural game with the class, playing that together, and then discussing how different cultural norms impact rules or traditions in a game context. This would be using the key area of learning ‘physical activity’ or it could even be ‘mental health’ if the teacher focused on belonging/inclusion.

That’s how flexible NZ HPE is! You can see with this example, that the priority is not just about the physical activity. Furthermore, it does not assume that by simply engaging in the physical activity alone, that students would automatically or naturally ‘respect others’ or ‘play fair’. In the example above, you can see that physical activity is just the context being used to teach the explicit outcome concerning respect.

It is important to note that in NZ HPE, there are no set ‘sports’ or ‘codes’ that teachers have to use. Teachers are able to select settings that make sense for their school, and their students. In fact the only recommendations are:

  1. Schools must consult with their communities when developing health and sexuality education programmes.
  2. Students will have had opportunities to learn basic aquatics skills by the end of year 6, and practical cooking skills by the end of year 8.
  3. Any outdoor education programmes must follow safe practice and meet legal requirements.

Think about this critically. If you teach at a school with beach access and the community are heavily involved with sustainability, the ocean, water sports and seaside recreation; then why would you use Rugby as a context to learn in?

In Practice

In practice there are always challenges! The big change to the NZ PE curriculum came in 1999, and then again in 2007. In practice, there are still teachers who haven’t successfully employed the new paradigm of thinking that was required by this change. This has resulted in some schools using outdated resources that align with historical perspectives of physical education (such as a heavy reliance on sport, fitness, and mono-cultured movement). Although some of these resources can be still relevant, many are not. One of the biggest reasons for this slow change, was the lack of ongoing formal, (Ministry of Education led) professional learning development given to the teaching profession to socialise the 1999 curriculum and explore its philosophical concepts in depth. Professional organisations, such as PENZ (Physical Education New Zealand) were left to provide as much subject specific support as they could, and teachers became very innovative in sharing knowledge and expertise. However, this gap in funded, professional support has meant that the uptake of critical, holistic HPE, was slower than it should have been. In some cases, schools today are only just realising the potential of the curriculum to deliver unique cultural and contextually specific programmes of learning.

Just like many other countries around the world, in NZ there is a constant need for advocacy to government and the sporting sector regarding the importance and intent of physical education. Several things have helped this cause, including strong relationships between the national subject association PENZ , Sport New Zealand and the Ministry of Education; and, of course, networks of critical practitioners who are vocal supporters. This is an ongoing challenge as public health agendas continue to drive policy, and ‘free education’ is continually tested by privatisation and commodification.

Nevertheless, it is important to celebrate the mammoth efforts of primary and secondary teachers in New Zealand to bring about the cultural change that the physical education profession has seen over the last 20-30 years. Prior to the Curriculum update in 2007, it was not uncommon to see Physical Education departments teach “sport” and the associated skills that went with that. For example, there might be a basketball unit. Students would learn fundamental basketball skills such as dribbling, shooting technique and some tactical skills as the core objectives of the lesson. As teachers began to unpack and embrace the four strands and the underlying concepts of the curriculum however, there was a shift in the way PE was taught. There was a distinctive move away from sport being the focus, and an emphasis was placed on learning in, through and about movement instead. Sport became one vehicle to teach the four strands.

 “Instead of teaching basketball, the focus might be on building the developing interpersonal skills within members of a team in a basketball context. There would be an explicit focus on skills such as communication, negotiation and leadership and there would be no assessment aligned to basketball playing ability of the student. Instead a peer, teacher or self-assessment would be applied in relation to the selected interpersonal skills. This would meet the achievement objective: Plan strategies and demonstrate interpersonal skills to respond to challenging situations appropriately”

Carl Condliffe (former HOD PE Rongatai College, now DP Wellington East).

This example is one of many that exist around New Zealand. A detailed breakdown of how a secondary school HPE unit of work could look can be found here.

More frequently, departments and schools are changing the nature of how physical education is taught and challenging entrenched understandings of PE. The flexibility of the curriculum, coupled with its criticality, has allowed for innovative, student-led, and cultural programmes that are arguably world-leading. Primary schools are more commonly questioning the role and place of outside sports providers in their programmes, and looking to replace traditional ‘sports days’ with more suitable and enjoyable alternatives for younger children. Some secondary schools are integrating historically entrenched subject silos to create authentic learning experiences, and physical educators are commonly leading school wide innovation. For example, a unit or school term of work based around designing a prosthetic, and presenting how it could enhance participation; bringing together the fields of biomechanics, social inclusion, communication, technology and physical activity (HPE, Technology and English).

Time given to HPE, and the role of Sport.

At the primary/intermediate level (ages 5 – 12), the NZC learning areas should receive the same amount of time across long-term planning for the year. In reality, individual school leadership and teacher interests still shape the learning programme, and therefore the priorities. There are still debates on the importance of literacy and numeracy, and at times this marginalises HPE and other ‘minority’ subject areas. In the primary space, HPE sometimes gets replaced by sport, fitness or external providers coming in to take a health or sports session. This is slowly changing, and recent ministry initiatives are supporting quality HPE practice in schools, alongside a focus on well-being.

At a secondary level, HPE is compulsory in the junior years (ages 13-14), with the learning area traditionally receiving an average of 3 hours per week. This time is dedicated to HPE, with some schools choosing to take an integrated HPE approach, and others choosing to offer 2 x PE sessions, with 1 dedicated Health session per week. There are schools that integrate subjects together, or have longer 90 minute lessons, and they are subsequently able to structure the timetable to suit their needs. Then, in the senior secondary years (ages 15-18) physical education and health education are both optional, speciality subjects where students can gain credits towards NCEA. Each NCEA subject would traditionally receive about 4 hours per week. School sport is completely separate from HPE at the senior level. There may be additional courses available to students that are sport performance or leadership focused, but these are usually in addition to core PE or Health subjects.

“There is a clear understanding by the majority of teachers and schools, at the secondary level, that HPE is different from sport.”

Communities are also getting better at working with schools to encourage local participation, co-operation at the grass-roots levels, and focus on fun. Sports departments within schools work alongside the PE department, often sharing resources and facilities. Generally, HPE teachers are encouraged to coach school sport, and the expectation or reliance tends to fall on the HPE department to lead by example. However, teacher volunteerism outside of curriculum time with the coaching or managing of has seen considerable decline. Prior to 2000, 46% of teachers were involved in the coaching of school sport. By 2018, this was down to 31% and continues to decline (Pope, 2020). Some of the reasons identified for this decline included lack of recognition, other sporting commitments, and parental expectation.

In response to trends such as these and declines in team sport participation; Sport New Zealand (the government arm tasked with sport and recreation in New Zealand) have been working hard to send messaging to schools and families that competition, elitism and specialisation are not the best ways for children and youth to become physically educated, or foster lifelong physical activity experiences. Of course, there are the exceptions to this. In some schools, namely traditional schools with an extensive history, there continues to be tradition, elitism and performative sporting incentives, competitions and expectations. However, it is important to note, that HPE curriculum would still not be substituted for sport.

In Conclusion

The relationship between physical education and sport remains a complex one but Aotearoa New Zealand are pushing ahead with the challenge. The historical efforts of educators around the country to critically challenge and push the boundaries have been, and continue to be instrumental in the way the nation has viewed HPE. It has, and continues to be a team effort. The key changes in NZ HPE over the years have come as a result of curriculum development that is bicultural, holistic and critical.

“To me, health and physical education should be a safe place for students to learn, trial, challenge, fail, grow and find holistic movement meanings; so they can live authentic, embodied, joyful and connected lives” @susierstevens


  1. Physical education in Aotearoa | New Zealand is holistic. It is not separate from ‘health’ and is therefore the subject is called HPE. This comes from the indigenous Māori view of Hauora (which is like well-being) that holds physical well-being in equal status to one’s mental and emotional, spiritual, social well-being and connection to the land. All are equally important and necessary.
  2. HPE has specific achievement objectives, and the school is required to cover all of those throughout the year. The contexts can change to how these are achieved. There are no set ‘sports’ or ‘codes’ to use. Teachers are able to select settings that make sense for their school, and their students.
  3. NZ is bicultural and has a Treaty document that it must uphold in education, and the teaching profession. The HPE learning area takes this responsibility seriously, by including Māori language, te ao kori (Māori movement) and lessons that are culturally responsive and inclusive.
  4. These changes to physical education practices over the last 20-30 years, could have come about sooner with greater investment into teacher education, and ongoing, funded professional support for teachers.
  5. In, through and about movement is a philosophy that is vital to the learning area, and schools are encouraged to think about this when planning movement experiences and contexts to learn in.

If you have a different perspective to that described above or would like to contribute to a similar blog on a different country then we would love to hear from you so, please get in touch


  1. In health and physical education, the use of the word hauora is based on Mason Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Whā model (Durie, 1994). Hauora and well-being, though not synonyms, share much common ground. Taha wairua relates to spiritual well-being; taha hinengaro to mental and emotional well-being; taha tinana to physical well-being; and taha whānau to social well-being.

Helpful links and references.

About the authors

Dr Susannah Stevens (Susie) @susierstevens

Lecturer in the School of Teacher Education, University of Canterbury, NZ. President of Physical Education New Zealand.

Carl Condliffe @NZPEteacher

Deputy Principal Wellington East Girls’ College, Wellington, NZ. Health and Physical Education teacher.

Will Swaithes @WillSwaithes

Teacher, teacher educator and specialist leader of education (SLE) for Physical Education based in Nottinghamshire, UK.

Supporting Documents

Y10 Gender, Sport and Sexuality Lesson ideas

Y10 Gender, Sport and Sexuality Unit plan



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