The Government has a goal to increase the number of students achieving National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2 qualifications. Primary schools have a significant role in contributing to this goal by ensuring that students leaving their schools are achieving at a level that enables them to succeed at secondary school. The Ministry of Education (the Ministry) has established a goal to increase the proportion of learners achieving at or above national literacy and numeracy standards. To achieve this goal, outcomes must improve for key priority groups, including Māori students that are not achieving well, Pacific students who are not achieving success, special needs students and those from low income families.

In this evaluation ERO examined the extent to which 176 primary schools [1] (years 1-8) were using effective strategies to improve outcomes for priority groups of learners. Many schools had some deliberate actions intended to accelerate the progress of priority learners. However, only 23 percent of schools’ actions demonstrated the use of highly effective practices the students needed to catch up with their peers. Of the remainder, 62 percent had some effective practices, and a further 12 percent were using ineffective practices. Three percent of schools were not using the National Standards. Many schools lacked robust self-review processes that focused on determining the impact of their actions for priority learners.

Most teachers were taking some actions intended to accelerate students’ learning. However, only just over one-quarter of the schools were able to show that these actions were highly effective. This indicates a need for ongoing teacher professional development to build teachers’ confidence and understanding of strategies they could use. Some teachers demonstrated a lack of ownership of their role in helping students to catch up, instead relying on an out-of-class ‘expert’ or intervention.

The role of the principal was vital in schools that were successfully accelerating learning. Leaders in these schools communicated a clear vision that all students were able to succeed and shared with trustees and staff a good understanding of what constitutes accelerated progress. They promoted an inquiry-based teaching and learning approach. Leaders accessed and facilitated relevant professional learning development designed to focus on teaching practices that needed to improve for students not succeeding. These principals coordinated a cohesive approach where boards, leaders and teachers worked collaboratively for the benefit of these students.

Leaders in the less successful schools had not developed a coherent team approach to responding to children who were not achieving well. The lack of clear expectations and commitment to priority learners resulted in inconsistency and variability of practice across their schools. School charter targets lacked specific details and were not directly related to priority learners. Analysed achievement data was rarely used as a basis for decisions about what worked for these students and what should be changed.

The schools that effectively accelerate students’ progress fully used school-wide data to determine the specific extra teaching that individual students needed. Leaders in these schools collated teachers’ analysed data that identified individual student’s specific strengths and next learning steps. Leaders also looked for achievement trends over time to establish how well their systems and programmes were working.

In contrast, schools where leaders mostly aggregated the numbers of students achieving below or well below the standards lacked the information to decide on their school-wide professional development or resourcing needs. Issues with the validity, reliability and sufficiency of assessment data in the less effective schools meant leaders had difficulties identifying which students needed additional support and the specific concepts they needed to master to make progress.

Few schools effectively identified and targeted the full range of priority learners. They were likely to identify students who were achieving below the National Standards in literacy and numeracy and target their needs. Māori and Pacific students were often subsumed into the more general group of under-achieving students. Only a few schools identified Māori and Pacific students as a focus group within the larger group of students achieving below the standards. These schools were still less likely to develop specific strategies to respond to the individual strengths, needs and interests of students in this group.

Many boards allocated resources for programmes to ‘catch up’ learners. However, only 17 percent of boards had processes to show trustees how effectively their resourcing was accelerating students’ progress. Many boards needed more extensive and robustly analysed achievement information from the principal. Trustees often lacked an understanding that they could request this or use their data for decision-making.