The head of the Ministry of Education says New Zealand's education system is not world class.
Chief executive Lesley Longstone wrote in the ministry's annual report that New Zealand cannot claim to be world class because Maori and Pasifika children and children from poor communities are under-performing.
But sector groups disagree, saying New Zealand's education system ranks highly in international comparisons and is clearly world class.
Educational Institute president Ian Leckie said says there is room for improvement, but Mrs Longstone has gone too far with her comments.
Among OECD member nations, 15-year-olds in New Zealand are ranked fourth in literacy and science, and sixth in maths.
Mrs Longstonearrived from England in late 2011. She told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme on Monday that she used the same phrase in briefing papers to ministers last year.
She said New Zealand is seen internationally as high-performing, but characterised by inequity. In order for New Zealand's schools to be truly high-performing, she says they must deliver quality results for all children.
The current system fails many children and ways need to be found to engage children who are under-achieving, she says.
The Post Primary Teachers' Association says parents are being frightened into believing that controversial government policies are necessary to solve a non-existent crisis in education.
The union considers that New Zealand's education system is world-leading and comments such as Mrs Longstone's undermine public confidence in it.
It says that paves the way for policies that will undermine collaboration among schools - something that will weaken, rather than improve the system.
Kura kaupapa leader supports Longstone
Kura kaupapa Maori-immersion schools on Monday defended the Secretary for Education's comments.
Toni Waho, chairman of the Te Runanga Nui O Nga Kura Kaupapa Maori, says Lesley Longstone has delivered an important message.
"We have a world class system for some students in New Zealand. We don't have a world class system for all students. I think it's an important message for the Secretary for Education to give. I don't think she's dumping on all those wonderful successes."
Mr Waho says some children are not getting a world class education - and that needs to change.