Online schools surging in popularity as cost of living, bullying push kids away from traditional classrooms

With the cost-of-living crisis growing ever more punishing more New Zealand families are looking for a cheaper life in the regions, but then worry about what impact this may have on their children's education.  

Then there are kids who are bullied at school and grow to fear walking through the school gates every morning.   

One answer to this, it seems, is online education.

The number of students enrolling in online schools has risen significantly over the past few years.  

Mirabella Breen, 14, trains for cross country at the beach, twice a day, every day. 

As an online learner, her school timetable allows it.

"I wanted to have access to a better education, so I had a better chance at going to medical school," said Mirabella.

"And it also allowed me to have a lot more flexibility so I could do a lot more training for my running." 

Living in rural Coromandel after life in central Auckland, Mirabella enrolled in the Crimson Global Academy (CGA) at the beginning of last year, turning her back on the traditional classroom and the social problems that can come with it. 

"There's a lot of drugs and bullying problems at the local high school and I didn't want to be involved with that and I didn't want any distractions from my education, so I thought online learning would be best," she said. 

Her parents were initially skeptical, but a few weeks in, they were sold.  

"It's completely self-run, she does everything herself," her father Jason Breen said. "We don't check on her throughout the day, she does everything. We do checkups once a week - that she's done all her classes and done all her homework - but it really all comes from Mirabella, she does everything herself." 

Last year Mirabella was named her year's top student before being advanced to year 11. She already has her eye on Stanford University - and its track team - once school finishes. 

"I've wanted to go to Stanford since I was seven," she said. 

Jade Sceats is proof that's achievable. The 18-year-old is from the small Northland town of Kerikeri and she's just been accepted into both the Georgia Institute of Technology and Ivy League Columbia University in America, having completed her CGA high school education online – among the first in the country to do so. She thrived. 

"You have really small classes so it's really easy to connect with your classmates and teachers, and I think you get a level of discussion and engagement which is unparallelled compared to normal classrooms," she said. 

A growing number of Kiwi students are enrolling in online high schools, with a growing number of school options available - including two just approved to use the Cambridge International curriculum. 

Here are some stats: 

  • In 2020 The Correspondence School had 23,000 students – two years later it increased to 28,000
  • CGA had 12 students in 2020 – that increased to 284 in New Zealand in 2024. With 1600 students worldwide
  • In 2022 Mt Hobson Academy had 56 students, this year the roll is 220
  • And Amana Christian School went from 20 in 2022 to 78 students in 2023.