A great learning curve

Issue: Volume 96, Number 5

Posted: 27 March 2017
Reference #: 1H9d77

Rotorua’s Catholic faith-based Community of Learning (CoL) lead principal Patrick Walsh talks about the CoL’s journey to date.

International studies show that the best education systems have a high level of collaboration between schools; one of the best features of Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako has been to break down the silo mentality that we’ve developed where we’re all acting like islands and not focusing on the whole student.

The Communities of Learning |Kāhui Ako concept was initially a hard sell for me at John Paul College and for the principals of the other eight schools in our community. We all thought ‘our schools are doing well – why do we need a CoL when we’re already doing a great job?’

Then it became obvious that, for example, if we can enhance the learning experience in the primary schools, even by a little bit, that would benefit our high schools.

Our nine principals knew each other as a Catholic collective. Yet strangely the first time we shared each other’s stories was as a CoL. I didn’t know much about our contributing school; we receive their students but dealt with them in isolation. Sharing our stories has been hugely positive. We were amazed at what was going on in each of our schools.

We thought we would get to our achievement challenges straightaway. However, the complexity of working across nine schools, nine ways of assessing data, and a new leadership
structure, meant we spent the first year focusing on transitions. We spent time understanding each other’s schools, analysing our achievement data and identifying our strengths and where further development was required.

For our boards of trustees, their priority had always been their local school. So we got the board chairs together and provided them with professional development about the importance of ensuring that children coming through all our schools are getting the best deal. We want to share best practice with them, which will lift educational achievement within our schools.

Achievement challenges

This year there will be a focus on the achievement challenges. Key areas are teaching as inquiry and transition from early childhood to primary and from primary to secondary – because it’s often there that we get difficulties.

We’ve had the across-school coordinators sharing best practice with other teachers, working in the classroom, with small groups, with principals, and gaining a greater understanding of assessment tools in schools and wider experience of those assessment tools by staff.

The biggest challenge for our CoL is in maths and science, both in releasing teachers to work in other schools and because there’s a shortage of good quality teachers. So we are bringing teachers together to work across our community for two days a week in science, mathematics, literacy and transitions.

The good thing about a community is that this release time is flexible. Lead teachers can take that time in a block form. That flexibility has reduced some of the concerns about teachers being out of the classroom.

The across-school coordinators teach part-time. Their role releases them for two days a week to visit schools, meet lead teachers, check achievement challenges, and identify and conduct professional development for a single school, clusters of schools, or all nine schools. Coordinators have very good relationships with the lead teachers and meet once a term with the community principals.

We’ve identified best practice in each school and been amazed at the high quality of teaching that is happening and the use of assessment tools. The key conduit has been the across-school coordinators. As they have visited schools, they have identified expert practitioners and got them to share their knowledge and expertise with others in the community.

The transition across schools hasn’t been entirely smooth. We have a high level of trust and cooperation among principals. But some teachers probably still see themselves as teachers in their schools.

We think this is because the achievement challenges haven’t yet directly impacted their classroom practice. As they do, we’re confident that all teachers will identify as community teachers and take ownership of the achievement of all students across our entire community.

Supporting the learning pathway

We have appointed an across-school coordinator to work on transitions for children moving from early learning into our primary schools.

In terms of pedagogy, our schools can learn from early childhood teachers. We are working with the early childhood sector to help identify the requirements for children moving to primary school.

Our secondary science teachers are also working with primary science teachers to boost content knowledge about conducting experiments, and we are learning from primary teachers who have a very good knowledge around the use of ICT as a tool.

This has been an interesting process because there are some differences in approaches to science between our primary and secondary schools. For example, primary has more of a focus on the child so in science it’s about developing their sense of awe and wonder. Secondary focuses on content, skills and knowledge, such as knowing the scientific method.

We’ve developed some assessment tools that identify both components and hone in on the areas we need to focus on to make for better science transitions. We have also thought about students who haven’t done particularly well, such as our students with additional learning needs. We discovered there is huge variability in how schools administer learning support registers.

We asked all special education needs coordinators to create a standard register. This goes with the student, from their primary to their secondary school. All our secondary schools now know the students who are coming and their needs, how their prior school assisted them, and what they can do to further support them on their learning pathway.

Collecting and analysing achievement data is complex, even for your own school. But it’s critical when you’re working across schools using different assessment tools and trying to make sense of the combined data to inform your achievement challenges.

Our expert partner Cathy Wyllie is doing useful work in this area. Her focus is not so much getting commonality on the assessment tools but in creating professional development for our teachers in using them.

I think if we could get this sorted, it would be a huge help. It was also very helpful working with two Education Review Office staff before expert partners were available. They posed very useful questions, conducted excellent professional development sessions, and presented to us on strategic issues.

If I was asked to suggest improvements in future design, I’d also advocate for classroom teachers, deans or faculty heads being able to apply for lead teacher or cross-school coordinator roles.

Learning by leading

Communities of Learning are new for everyone and I think it’s a three- to five-year programme to get where we actually want to be.

I understand some of my colleagues’ concerns, particularly around releasing teachers, but the basic principles of IES and Communities of Learning have been agreed by everybody, so why not give it a go? Come with an open mind and see how it works.

It’s a huge leap from leading your own school to leading and working across nine schools. With principals as colleagues, you work by consensus, cooperation and persuasion.

We all have autonomy in our own schools. But we need to agree as a community on what we are doing together. Otherwise we’re not going to achieve much.

For me, it’s been a great learning curve as principal of John Paul College and as the Community of Learning leader of nine fantastic schools. I don’t think it can be contested that schools working in collaboration to improve best practice and educational outcomes for all students is a good idea.

The Rotorua Catholic faith-based Community of Learning includes John Paul College, Aquinas College, Bishop Edward Gaines Catholic School, St Joseph’s Catholic School (Opotiki), St Mary’s Catholic School (Putaruru), St Mary’s Catholic School (Rotorua), St Mary’s Catholic School (Tauranga), St Michael’s Catholic School (Rotorua), and
St Thomas More Catholic School Tauranga.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 6:23 pm, 27 March 2017

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