Strength in numbers

Issue: Volume 95, Number 17

Posted: 19 September 2016
Reference #: 1H9d4W

Working in collaboration towards a shared goal has brought a broad group of teachers and students together for the benefit of their community. Education Gazette talks to three principals involved.

Principal of Auckland Normal Intermediate Jill Farquharson believes her school is already seeing positive changes since the establishment of ACCOS (Auckland Central Community of Schools).

Jill, who is also lead principal of ACCOS, says the group was named before the term Communities of Learning came into common use.

“We were quite early adopters of the idea. Our community has 11 schools, including one early childhood education service and one secondary school,” she says.

While a number of schools in central Auckland had been communicating well for some time, Jill says that being part of ACCOS has greatly enhanced their communication about “good, meaty stuff” because it’s provided a

shared purpose that reaches beyond superficial things such as uniforms and sports days.

‘Us, not me’

“Establishing the community appealed to us because for so long we’d found that meetings we’d had with other schools lacked real collaboration around data or discussion of pedagogical approaches."

“We had chatted about professional development and administrative issues, but we’d never actually laid data down on the table."

“So I saw this chance and knew it had the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the schools around us.”

Jill says that by working together and focusing on clear pathways for students in the community, a coherent approach to student achievement is being developed.

“We’re not there yet – it’s certainly not perfect, but I believe that categorically, we are in a far better place now than what we were this time last year.”

One important development has been a wider understanding of the types of learning programmes and assessment that a student will encounter as they move along the education pathway.

This includes a deeper understanding and alignment across the community of what National

Standards mean and how the data is collected.

Similarly, the primary schools are developing a clearer understanding about how NCEA works, which Jill says has led to a more coherent approach to assessment and data collection across the community of schools.

“Previously we might have only known about that if we’d had our own children go through that system, but now we have access to a deeper professional knowledge about it."

“So we’ve got a far better understanding of what goes on for all the learners in our community, and are better placed to make a seamless pathway for our children,” says Jill.

“It’s proven to be a real learning curve but there have been so many positive interactions already. Other teachers and leaders are engaged and very receptive about working together. They’re just willing to give it a go."

“We’re moving from just ‘me’ and my 700 intermediate students, to the idea of ‘us’ and our 7,000 local students, and that’s a big change."

“I think it’s probably been one of the most exciting things I’ve done in my teaching career, in terms of progress for my students."

“It’s a totally student-focused project, and we’ve found that our learners have gained a new appreciation about the progress and challenges in the schools around us. It’s a whole new paradigm as far as I’m concerned.”

Jill believes that one of the real strengths of the project is that it’s ‘middle led’.

“It’s not a top-down model, where professionals come in and tell us what to do and how to do it. Rather, we are the drivers, and we are the leaders, and that’s unbelievably empowering for us.”

Clarity of vision

Lorraine Pound is the principal at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School, which is currently the only secondary school in ACCOS.

She believes that a great strength of the group is its clear sense of vision and purpose, and it is this that will set the community up for success.

“Our clarity of vision is an enormous help in our work, and from the beginning that gave us a real sense of strength,” she says.

“Our vision is centred upon improving learning outcomes for our students, and doing so with a clear shared process, which is to listen, trust, collaborate and take action.”

“We’re an ethnically diverse school – currently we have 82 nationalities represented among our students. We celebrate diversity and have an interesting mix from all the schools that contribute,” she says.

“It’s very important for us to know and understand what learning looks like in the primary and intermediate schools in our community, and so this has been a really valuable process for us.”

Like Jill, Lorraine believes the positive changes at Epsom Girls’ Grammar are already evident.

“Within the achievement challenges set by ACCOS, we’ve been able to establish PLG groups across the staff, and pursue projects that really interest us."

“Because our teachers go out to other schools, and other teachers come into our school, we are focused on the very important concept of ‘knowing the learner’."

“This has always been important to us at Epsom Girls’, but it’s also central to the idea of Communities of Learning nationwide."

“We’re already seeing the benefits within our school, and we’re also seeing benefits of learning from the other schools in the community,” she says.

Another key focus for the school is that of transition – and helping students move as seamlessly as possible along their educational journey.

“And in all stages of education, knowing the learner, and listening to the learner, are key concepts.”

Along with ‘knowing the learner,’ student agency is a vital ingredient of a successful educational journey, and the idea of transformation through collaboration is something that heartens Lorraine.

“A lot of our work is centred around the notion of student agency. The student is not a passenger – they must have agency in their own learning."

“Through ACCOS, we’re all collaborating much more widely than we would have in the past. We’ve always had lots of contact with the schools, especially those sending year 8 students on to us, but this gives us a whole new structure to work with, and new ways of doing things."

“Collaboration is not the same as cooperation, which just refers to working together. When you truly collaborate, you’ve got the possibility of doing things differently; of being transformed."

“It’s about being brave, and taking action – which may well be just a small step – but you can try something out and see if it works. If you’ve got an environment of trust – that can be very powerful.”

Power of connections

Wendy Kofoed is principal at Newmarket Primary School and together with Mangawhau School principal Delanee Dale has the role of sub-leader of ACCOS.

“While it’s early days in our community, we’re starting to see collective teacher efficacy in action,” says Wendy.

“I wasn’t expecting the level of momentum that we’re seeing – the in-school teacher networks are strong, and new connections and networks are being formed across the schools."

“But it’s the intense focus on improving transitions and the development of a common understanding of our learners and their needs that is most powerful.”

One example, says Wendy, is a group of teachers working together to moderate student writing.

She reports that the in-school teachers have been surprised at the amount of variation in expectations across the community schools, despite past efforts to moderate student work collectively.

“There is strong commitment from the group of schools to make changes to our systems for the good of the whole,” she says.

“The collaboration has been about being prepared to change mind-sets and expectations – it is adaptive expertise in action.”

What the group has also recognised is the in-house expertise already in the community of schools.

“There have been some great discussions about practices, observations, and a deeper analysis of data across the cluster."

“It’s about looking more closely at how we do things and finding ways to problem solve together. So while our focus is not new, we’re doing this work now with a greater shared sense of purpose, and at all levels having deeper conversations about our work.”

Wendy says that through this collaboration, the schools are able to better involve parents and boards in providing smoother pathways for students.

“It’s important that we work together in respectful ways that support key transition points for the child and their whānau, focusing on their individual needs as they move through and between our schools."

“Having an understanding of others’ contexts and viewpoints will hopefully support this.”

Wendy says initially there were comments and raised eyebrows from colleagues regarding the need of the ACCOS higher decile inner-city schools being involved in a community of learning.

“I believe it’s equally as important for teachers in our schools to be part of this community, as it is for any school."

“We have as much to learn as any other community, and my experiences from previous work in networks, particularly those including schools in South Auckland, is that it is not about the decile but the expertise and collaboration in the network,” she says.

“ACCOS is an ethnically diverse community with a high number of students who are learning English as their second language."

“Like most schools in Auckland, we have a strong focus on celebrating and supporting ethnic diversity – and within ACCOS other opportunities are becoming apparent where we can support each other."

“While Auckland schools have made some good progress with student learning in recent years, in Auckland we still sit 20% below the national level for retention of Māori students."

“Our learners are benefiting from the opening of doors and opportunities for new leadership."

“We can achieve more together than we can on our own.”

More information

For more information about joining a Community of Learning, visit the Ministry Of Education website(external link) 

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

Posted: 5:55 PM, 19 September 2016

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