The power of the story: The Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards

Issue: Volume 97, Number 3

Posted: 26 February 2018
Reference #: 1H9hao

The Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards entry deadline is almost upon us – you’ve got until Friday 23 March to get your story in. Education Gazette speaks to one previous education expert panel member and two of the judges tasked with deciding which groups will be recognised as the pinnacle of education in New Zealand. They share some tips that might help you fine-tune your entry.

The Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards celebrate success across the education system. The Awards acknowledge that achieving great educational outcomes for New Zealand’s young people requires collaboration from teams, not just individuals. Being a finalist in any of the four award categories and the focus prize isn’t just a chance to celebrate and reflect on achievement, it’s an opportunity to share stories, strategies, and ideas that are working.

More good news

John Bongard will take his place as a judge for the third time in 2018. As the co-founder of a charitable trust working with underprivileged young people in his hometown of Papakura, he knows better than most that education is the difference between young people realising or squandering their potential. The trust is his retirement project. It comes after 30 years at Fisher and Paykel, including eight years as CEO. A brush with cancer led him to change direction.

John says celebrating New Zealand education is important, and teachers and our wider society need to be exposed to more good news from the sector.

The hardest part of his job, says John, is trying to separate so many worthy entries. It takes a rigorous process and microscopic detail to determine a winner, he says.

“It’s been extremely uplifting [being involved with the Awards]. I’ve always thought, to be very honest, that the teaching profession is underrated in New Zealand. What the process has reconfirmed for me is the quality of people that we have teaching our kids – we should be very, very grateful.

“I’m not an educationalist so it’s hard for me to comment on the theory. But what I can say, from a business perspective, is that the way that schools have evolved, the way that the community is now far more connected – there are many things to celebrate, in my view.”

When asked for his advice to applicants, John says that, firstly, he wants to make his job harder.

“I think there are lots of stories out there that we don’t hear about, so I would really just encourage all schools and early learning services to have a look at the Awards, and if you’ve got a great story, tell it. Because it’s not just about the Awards, it’s about being able to share best practice, and that’s a really important part of our system.

“In terms of specific advice, we’re really privileged on the judging panel in that we only see the best applications. But one thing I would say is that some of the schools who try to cover several categories would, in my view, be better off submitting separate applications – it’s a small point, but it’s something I’ve noticed.”

Tackling education from all directions

Another judge of this year’s Awards is Deborah George. Deborah brings to the table an incredibly varied, 30-year career “tackling education from all directions”. She has taught in the classroom as a secondary school teacher, helped inform governments here and in Australia, and run her own businesses – not to mention her several roles in the non-profit sector. In addition, Deborah is a co-founder of Teach First NZ.

Deborah reiterates the importance of getting better at sharing success, and is passionate about recognising teachers and school leaders who are working hard to improve outcomes for young people.

She feels privileged to have been exposed to a variety of schools and the challenges that they face, and that, for her, has made the exercise more than worthwhile.

“I’ve really learned a lot about collaboration – that was the common strength shared by all the finalist groups. Then there’s the collaboration between schools, which is something I hadn’t been so exposed to. There is so much great work going on; for example, between schools to help make the entire educational journey of students more seamless.

“But really, the highlight of the whole thing for me has been witnessing the pride that students, staff, and families have in their schools. That was just so awesome; we got to talk to everyone and they could say whatever they wanted. What shone through was pride – and I think if leaders can cultivate that pride, I think they’re halfway there, in terms of engagement.”

Deborah is also quick to point out the criteria for success is broader than just academic results. “It’s about impact”, she says.

“What you’re looking for are the schools that are adding most value, whatever the starting point. That may not be the school with the best resources, it’s about how they go about their work.

“Be bold, and put yourself out there. Because I think that aside from the competition itself, at the end of the application process, I think schools and early learning centres find that they’ve had a chance to step back and think, ‘actually, we’re doing a whole lot of good stuff.’ That to me is a really great result.”

Stories of change through innovation

Clare Wells has been CEO of New Zealand Kindergartens for 10 years. She came to the job with plenty of coalface experience as a teacher and has also worked in public policy. She’s been a past expert on the panel of education experts for the last three years.

Clare joined the panel to support the importance of educators telling their stories.

“I felt this was one way that we can tell stories about what’s happening out there in early childhood education, in schools, in kura around the country. The Awards themselves provide the opportunity for all of those groups to reflect on what they’re doing and to celebrate the amazing things that are happening within communities.”

“It’s also an opportunity to build understanding across the entire sector, about what happens in each part of our profession. I think that’s a really great outcome of the Awards. We can talk about our similarities, and our challenges.”

When asked for her advice to schools and early learning services thinking about applying, Clare says it’s all in the tale being told.

“It’s all about the power of the story. It’s about wonderful stories of change that come about through innovation, through teachers thinking differently, through a whole range of different catalysts.

“But what it comes down to at the end of the day is that teaching teams have seen something that they want to change – as a panelist reading that story, that’s all we’ve got to go on, first and foremost. We need to see applications that are very clear about what a group wanted to achieve, and that then take us back through how they went about making that change happen – how progress toward an objective was assessed, for example.

“At the end of the day, we ask ourselves ‘what happened to change things for children and young people as a result of this story?’.

“I’ve been lucky to be privy to a snapshot of what’s happening across the country at a given time at schools and early learning services, where people are striving to be innovative, to get engagement, to involve families and communities. Telling those stories is one of the ways that the profession enhances its practice.”

Entry details on the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards website(external link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 am, 26 February 2018

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