Factors both inside and outside of school contribute to lower student engagement at school. Students from low income communities often face more barriers to learning than students from high income communities.
National data on students’ achievement and engagement1 show that students in the lowest quintile2 schools are more likely to have poorer achievement levels and to be stood-down than students in the highest quintile schools. 3 Over 80 percent of all stand‑downs, suspensions and exclusions occur from schools of decile 5 or below. However, these outcomes are not the norm for all lower decile schools.
Students’ success is dependent, among other things, on students having a sense of belonging to and identifying with the school community. Issues which students have previously identified4 as leading to disciplinary measures include unclear rules, difficulties with work, poor relationships with teachers, and a mismatch with the school culture. If these exist it is hard for students to develop the sense of belonging which is so crucial to engagement and success.
Attitude, perceptions and actions of staff play a significant role in creating a nurturing ethos in schools. Actions of principals and teachers rather than student behaviours have been shown to contribute to the variation in suspension rates in schools.5
How a school uses stand-downs and suspensions makes a difference to outcomes for students. Used punitively, they can alienate students, making it harder for them to re‑engage with the learning community and go on to succeed.6 Alternatively stand‑downs and suspensions can be managed in a way that is therapeutic, with a problem-solving focus that raises students’ self esteem, sense of worth and place in the community. This makes it easier for students to return to learning. The therapeutic approach usually involves restorative practice. It may also include a focus on academic support, helping to deal with any learning difficulty and so help the students to re-engage and manage any future learning frustrations.
Ministry of Education (Ministry) initiatives7 have helped to improve student engagement but have yet to eliminate the disproportionate representation in the discipline statistics of students from lower decile schools, and Māori and Pacific students.
Many of the current education practices are not working for a large and growing percentage of the student body – indeed they may inadvertently be serving to perpetuate alienation and underachievement for many students.8
The Ministry has promulgated two significant initiatives aimed to develop positive school cultures. They are:
ERO’s previous national reports10 have shown that parental involvement, academic mentoring and the development of clear learning pathways are further contributors to students’ sense of worth and subsequent success.
What helps me learn is a good connection between my teacher and me.11
Learning is enhanced when structures for caring, opportunities for collaborative learning, and appreciation of diversity exist in classrooms. Effective teachers help develop strong learning communities through designing tasks that:
This approach has been shown to improve outcomes for all students by increasing their engagement and taking responsibility for their own learning.12 Students who are alienated from classroom contexts, either because these are not relevant or the students have been absent from the school, can suffer from loss of self esteem, self‑discipline issues, increased avoidance behaviours, and subsequent lowered academic success.
Recent teacher professional development has focused on raising students’ engagement and achievement. It recognises the need to establish caring relationships with students, to be aware of and affirm their identity as learners. It supports teachers to develop culturally responsive contexts for learning and school leaders to develop organisational structures to enable this tailoring of the curriculum.
Effective leadership is the key to developing a learning community where all systems and structures work together towards a common purpose, focusing on what is best for students. Robinson et al identify eight key dimensions to leadership and the knowledge, skills and dispositions that underpin these.
Figure 1: The knowledge, skills and dispositions underpinning the leadership dimensions 13
Principals have to be consummate change managers, always in determined pursuit of goals (Robinson, 2009: p.202). Developing the systems and processes that are most effective in raising student achievement across a school can be a challenge. Schools that succeed in this have developed the internal capacity to manage change. The leadership is strong and teachers work together in a climate of support and trust. The impact of such a climate on teachers’ performance and students’ outcomes is illustrated in the diagram below.
Figure 2: How relational trust operates in a school 14
It is clear that the social elements of the school have considerable importance in contributing to a successful school. Chapman suggests that if schools ignore social elements then any change tends to be short lived and not necessarily effective. Furthermore, he identifies one of the key challenges to developing sophisticated school improvement as contextualising those improvements; matching improvement strategies to [the] individual needs of the school.15
As advisor to the board of trustees, the principal keeps trustees informed of progress for students, how effective any initiatives have been, how well students are achieving, what else needs to be done, and what resources are needed to effect the improvement. The role of the principal and other leaders in the school is pivotal.
High functioning boards have reliable self-review practices, with rich data to interrogate and so determine what is effective for their students. In this context, trustees should be interrogating attendance data, disciplinary data, achievement data and leavers’ destinations, paying special attention to priority learners to inform their decisions about resources needed to keep every student in the school engaged and achieving success.