Service academies are a highly effective secondary school initiative. Across the 16 Ministry funded service academies in this evaluation, ERO found evidence that the motivation, academic achievement, demeanour and physical fitness of many students had improved greatly through being part of an academy. The changes made by these students were often seen as transformational by whānau members, teachers and the students themselves.

Most of the 16 service academies were found to provide high quality education and support for their students. Three of the 16 were highly effective providers and another nine showed good levels of effectiveness. Three were effective in some aspects but significant improvement would be made in several areas. One of the service academies demonstrated limited effectiveness.

The level of effectiveness found across the service academies marks them as a highly successful initiative for secondary schools. A majority of the students in the academy have previously had some difficulties in maintaining satisfactory levels of engagement with schooling. Their time in the service academies has turned this around and helped them to identify and demonstrate their potential.

The key factors supporting the effectiveness of the academies were the leadership of the directors, the contribution made by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), the quality of teaching in the academy programme and the development of a supportive academy culture.

Effective academy directors established excellent relationships with students and the leadership of the host school. While most directors were not trained as teachers, their skills as academy leaders included an ability to mentor previously struggling students, help them set goals and demand high standards in students’ discipline and application to learning activities.

The NZDF 12-day induction camp at the beginning of the year helped to establish the discipline, focus and values of the academies. Other NZDF camps and outdoor activities enabled students to develop outdoor skills, gain leadership skills and test themselves.

High quality teaching at the academies encompassed several elements. It involved the ‘stern but fair’ discipline of the academy staff and the high standards expected of students. Linked to this were the skills academy staff had in helping students set and achieve goals, especially in physical fitness. These programmes also set objectives with suitable planning.

These programmes demonstrated high quality, multi-level teaching. Typically this occurred during numeracy and literacy teaching, when academy students were taught as a group. Teaching the academy as a group helped to avoid the issues arising from these students being away from mainstream classes because they were off-site (for example at the 12-day induction camp). In order to manage the various abilities of the academy classes some schools effectively used heads of department and members of the school’s leadership team to deliver lessons that would allow for the different strengths of students.

The culture in the academies was a key factor in student engagement and achievement. While there were high expectations and high disciplinary standards, the overall culture was inclusive and supportive. This was built by the approach of the academy directors, the NZDF contribution and the time students spent together. An ethic of teamwork and collaboration was demonstrated across the academies. Students looked after each other, encouraged one another and built strong friendships. Students who had not been included well in mainstream education were fully included in the academies.

As might be expected with a relatively new educational initiative, there are some important areas for development. Academy directors have been working with NZDF personnel to establish how students could gain National Qualifications Framework credits for what they learnt during NZDF training courses. Some schools have also started work with academy staff to ensure that the programme planning for their service academy allows students to gain credits.

Schools also need to work with their academy staff to develop appraisal, professional development and self review systems. Because academy staff often have different professional backgrounds to conventionally trained teachers these systems will need to be specifically developed for these staff. School staff should also support directors to establish systems for supporting the exit transitions of students and to monitor the success of students who return to mainstream education. The analysis of returning students could provide valuable information on the sustainability of the gains students make in the academy programme. Exit transitions are also one of the important ways in which academies could build their relationships with parents and whānau.

This report raises questions about the registration, training and employment conditions of academy staff. This is an area for the Ministry of Education and schools to consider, as are the milestone reporting processes. Milestone reports should assist schools to develop self-review processes. Because of the different ways schools have spent their service academy money there is also a need for milestone reports to include data on how schools have used this money.

At a system level ERO noted that there were some complications relating to student access and the funding of service academies. Some of the host school principals were conscious of not to be seen ‘poaching’ students from other schools by offering them a place in a service academy. Likewise there was anecdotal evidence that students from schools without service academies were not offering these places as an option for their students – because they would lose funding if these students left their school. These examples suggest that some of the places in the service academies may not necessarily going to the students who would most benefit. Moreover, this raises questions about the extent to which other Youth Guarantee initiatives may also be affected by schools making financial decisions ahead of educational ones.