An unrelenting focus on teaching and learning: school leadership that works

Issue: Volume 96, Number 3

Posted: 27 February 2017
Reference #: 1H9d6p

Effective school leadership is taking place every day all over the country. A recent ERO report highlights six ‘habits’ that characterise this effective leadership.

The Education Review Office (ERO) released a report on school leadership late last year. School Leadership That Works is intended as a resource for school leaders. As well as outlining ERO’s School Evaluation Indicators in practice, the report includes findings from recent evaluative work with school leaders across the country.

It’s well known that effective school leadership is essential to student success and wellbeing, and this report highlights six ‘habits’ in particular that contribute to highly effective leadership.

These six habits are:

  • Setting goals and targets to raise achievement to promote equity and excellence, and to actively involve parents and caregivers to raise achievement
  • Supporting and promoting student wellbeing
  • Regular planning and evaluating of teaching practice to ensure that the school is meeting the learning needs of all students
  • Aligning student learning needs with the professional learning and development of teaching staff
  • Using evidence, evaluation and inquiry regularly to monitor student achievement and to improve teaching practice
  • Building strong relationships with other educational and community institutions to increase opportunities for student learning and student success.

“The quality of school leadership makes a significant difference for children’s futures,” says ERO’s acting chief review officer Nicholas Pole.

“This resource is aimed at all school leaders, but especially those less experienced leaders who may be seeking to become more successful by learning from the good practice of others."

It includes effective practice examples to inspire improvement in school leadership,” he says.

School Leadership That Works includes a number of case studies taken from ERO’s evaluative work across New Zealand.

One such example is that of Gisborne Boys’ High School (GBHS), where senior leaders decided that one way to improve the overall performance of students was to increase the boys’ engagement both in school life and their own learning.

Tū Tāne programme

With the goal of increasing student engagement in school and community life, the leadership team at GBHS framed up a values-based approach, actively promoting perseverance, loyalty, respect, courage and honesty.

Delivered through the physical education and health curriculum, the Tū tāne programme aims to ‘grow good boys into good men,’ and targets year 10 boys in particular at a time when many have poor self esteem, challenging behaviour and are disengaged from learning.

The programme is designed to be a series of rites of passage into adulthood and includes:

  • Seven key stages, each with its own ceremony
  • Practical and theoretical lessons
  • Strong links with the community, including support from the Gisborne Police, which provides mentors for the year 10 classes
  • Tāne Uetika, the mentor ceremony, where each boy has a ‘good man’ to stand for him.

Work with the students in Tū Tāne complements the work that teachers undertake in the Te Kotahitanga programme, providing both groups with tools to establish mutually respectful and productive relationships throughout the school.

Senior students are now ‘the upholders of the values’ established in the school, leading younger students as mentors and by example. The first group of students to participate in Tū Tāne were in year 13 in 2013, and school leaders described them as being very connected and respectful.

Stand-down and suspension statistics have dropped dramatically since the introduction of the programme in 2009.

Senior leaders have introduced several key initiatives that clearly support each boy’s engagement and success in their learning. Another important development has been the Whakairo programme.

Catering for students in years 11–13, the whakairo class provides the opportunity for boys to work toward a national certificate in whakairo (Māori carving). Students are engaged in their work, learning in an emotionally and culturally secure environment and have shown they can transfer their success in this artform to other curriculum areas.

The head of Māori Studies is critical to the success of the whakairo class, and also for significant increases in students studying te reo Māori. He designed a programme that builds on students’ strengths, celebrates achievements and enables academic successes.

In addition to the Tū tāne and Whakairo programmes, the school has developed a range of other learning support initiatives, developed in collaboration with students, staff and the community.

GBHS principal Greg Mackle stresses the importance of teamwork and community when it comes to leadership.

“Effective leadership is not just about one person. It is impossible to be an effective leader without having a superb team who work towards collaboratively co-constructed goals,” he says.

“At our school we have a superb team from the board and wider community, to the leadership team, and teaching staff, and we all commit to working together to achieve our shared vision for our young men."

“That vision is to challenge young men to develop and achieve their potential."

“Effective leadership is a complex concept with many different essential input factors, and teamwork is one of these.”

A pathways approach

Another example of effective leadership in action can be seen at Hauraki Plains College, where a vocational pathways approach was in operation before it became an official Ministry of Education initiative.

Following the economic downturn in 2007–2008, year 13 enrolments doubled at the rural Waikato school, highlighting the need for a more diverse range of courses at senior level. At this time, school leaders questioned whether the current course options provided equitably for all students, and acknowledged that university was not the only pathway to excellence.

With this in mind, the school began trialling a ‘pathways’ subject structure of arts, sciences, trades and services, where every space on the timetable had a choice from each of these pathways.

When Vocational Pathways were finalised and published by the Ministry of Education in 2013, the school viewed them as something to add value to what they were already offering students, and incorporated them into the college’s existing curriculum.

The college is now moving towards a pathways management structure with pathway ‘champions’, who have designated responsibility for providing leadership to teaching staff in their particular pathway.

A key role of these champions is to facilitate the cross-curricular links that are an essential element of Vocational Pathways.

A Vocational Pathways mathematics course was introduced in 2015. Students can now see the point of learning mathematics because the course links to their chosen pathways.

Mathematics teachers liaise with teachers of practically oriented courses so they can align the teaching of specific topics that relate directly to what students are learning in their other courses.

This has lifted students’ engagement, self-esteem and motivation. It has also lifted the numbers in senior mathematics classes as students now realise they need maths to succeed in their chosen pathways.

Hauraki Plains College also maintains strong links with community employers who provide students with a wide range of ‘on the job’ learning opportunities in their chosen pathway, and with tertiary providers to help students gain the relevant credits and qualifications.

Principal Ngaire Harris says that employing teachers who have had trade experience ensures authentic learning experiences for students.

“We have a strong belief that when students appreciate how their particular talents, interests and aspirations align with a pathway, then school becomes quite a different place for them,” she says.

A review focussed on improving teaching practice

The principal of Tauranga’s Otumoetai Intermediate, Henk Popping, felt that before 2007, the school’s self-evaluation processes were ineffective in bringing about any real change.

That year, he invited John Hattie to speak to teachers at a teacher-only day, as a starting point for a relentless focus on effective teaching to improve student outcomes.

As an intermediate school, there is only a two-year window of opportunity to lift student achievement, and at the time, the senior leadership team was interested in why learning was more effective in some classrooms than others, and knew they would need to have all teachers motivated and on board if real change was going to happen.

The primary challenge was to shift teaching practice to a focus on student achievement through identifying learning needs and making teachers accountable for the quality of teaching.

Implementation of a new plan began in 2008. Teachers were observed to gather evidence and give feedback. During classroom observations, students were asked about how they felt about what was happening for them.

Observations showed that most of the teachers in the school enthusiastically managed whole-class teaching where students were engaged most of the time. The small number of teachers that needed more guidance had many opportunities to observe and reflect on others’ practice, and received ongoing support from their colleagues.

Teachers met weekly to discuss their students’ learning and progress, and an external expert was engaged to observe and give feedback on progress. Academics were also called upon to help with specific areas of teaching, such as mathematics and leadership development.

It became clear that teachers’ development needs were as diverse as those of their students. Some decisions were made to change the way PLD was delivered; specifically, to tailor courses to particular teachers, rather than focus on whole-school professional development.

A buddy system whereby teachers observed each other’s practice was implemented.

The sustained work on teacher improvement at Otumoetai Intermediate since 2008 has led to a fundamentally different quality of teaching and learning that is being constantly refined, and is reflected in the students’ levels of engagement in learning.

Nine years after this work began, principal Henk Popping reports that close analysis of student data continues to be integral to raising achievement at the school, in particular in maths and writing.

“We’ve been building on this work of maintaining an unrelenting focus on teaching and learning. For us, it’s about continuous improvement, and looking to see how we can do things differently for our students,” he says.

External expertise remains an important tool for school leadership. Over the past few years Otumoetai teachers have been working with a range of academics, including Kevin Knight (behaviour management), Viviane Robinson (professional practice), Ian Hunter (writing) and Roberta Hunter (mathematics).

“We engage the best external experts we can to help us build our own expertise,” says Henk.

Positive changes are evident for students, the board and staff, and this is not only improving the quality of the learning environment but also the quality of the teachers’ daily experience.

“In terms of leadership, change requires a constant focus – it’s never finished,” says Henk.

ERO’s School Leadership That Works report can be found on the ERO website(external link) 

Working together to realise potential

A Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako is a group of education and training providers working together to help students achieve their full potential.

These include early childhood education services me ngā kōhanga reo (early learning services), schools, kura, and post-secondary.

High-quality school leadership is one of the most crucial in-school factors determining student achievement.

One of the aims of Kāhui Ako is to promote the effective school leadership and teaching practice being displayed at Hauraki Plains College, Otumoetai Intermediate and Gisborne Boys’ High School, more widely throughout our education system, so all our learners can achieve more.

Hauraki Plains College principal Ngaire Harris is the lead for the Hauraki Kāhui Ako, consisting of one secondary school and 11 full primary schools.

Henk Popping, principal of Otumoetai Intermediate, is the lead for the Ōtūmoetai Community of Learning, which involves six contributing schools, two secondary schools, one
intermediate and a teen parent unit.

Gisborne Boys’ High School is a member of the Taha Hinengaro Community of Learning, consisting of two secondary schools and three full primary schools.

Find out about Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako in your area and get involved.

Contact your local Director of Education to discuss what’s involved. You can also ring 0800 IES INFO (0800 437 4636) or email

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 6:20 pm, 27 February 2017

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts