The school was opened in 1980 by the Governor General, Sir David Beattie, with a roll of 199 students. The school is co-educational and was the first S80 or whānau house school built in New Zealand. It now has a roll of over 2500 students and the campus is situated on 13 hectares (32 acres) of land.
Each whānau house comprises a large building with a variety of teaching spaces and a commons area which acts as a social space. The whānau is an extended family of approximately 300 students which operates as a mini school within the larger school.
On arrival at Macleans College a student is placed in a form class. That form class is assigned to one of the whānau houses. The students remain in that form class and, therefore, in that house for the duration of their time at the college.